BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

Diederik Hol is general manager and design engineer at Sportsline International, leader in the design and production of inline skates. This company was set up in 1999 in the Netherlands and has since been the official distributor of Mogema frames. Hol tells his story about how he got involved with skating, why he had to put his dream aside for a while, and how he's become a big name in the skating world.

The Dutch skaters largely beat all competition at the European Championships in ice skating in 1996. In Hamar, Norway, they arrived in the skating rink--the lion's den--wearing clapskates, a design that was then making its first appearance after years of developing and testing. Diederik Hol, now 32, stood at the origin of the worldwide use of the clapskates' design. During his graduation project at Interraps--producer of inline and ice skates--he worked on the improvement of the first (Viking) design. With his results in hand, he turned the 100-year-old patent into a true world-record-breaking product. Less than 10 years later, he's at the top of the inline skate design industry.

It all started in 1995 with an announcement Hol saw at the canteen's bulletin board while doing his M.Sc. in design engineering at Delft Technical University. "Dutch manufacturer of ice speed skates offers six-month research training into designing a clap skate," it read. "Clap skate"; it didn't sound very much like serious research at the time, and Hol saw most students walking by chuckling. He saw however in the ad an opportunity to develop something with the potential of setting new world records, and he used the project as a springboard for his career in design engineering. He graduated having worked on the Rotrax skate, a multiple-hinge frame that ensures a more powerful push-off and thus higher speed.

Broadening His Experience

After graduation, Hol opted against a Ph.D. "I didn't feel like studying anymore," he explains. Instead he wanted to bring his knowledge into practice and learn more about engineering in the real world. Since he started his graduation project, he's been wishing for a career in skate design. "I like fast products and sports," says the man who's ridden many kilometers as an amateur cyclist. Based on his sporting experience, he feels he can relate to the athletes and thus be dedicated, which he thinks is very important for a design engineer.

At the time, however, it was difficult for him to find a full-time job in the skating sector. So he put his dream on hold for a while and worked as an engineer on a variety of other projects. He has for example been involved in the development of automotive designs, solaria, and even platform elevators for wheelchairs. He looked at every project as a new challenge, taking the opportunity to work in different conditions and with different objectives--from the appearance of the products to safety issues. To him this experience has been key in the development of his career. "It helped me a lot in becoming a 'mature' designer," Hol says.

Waiting for the Right Opportunity

All along, Hol had continued to work for Interraps as a freelance designer while hoping for a chance to fully step back into skate design. Sure enough it came along, when Sportsline International, one of the biggest players in the design of inline skates, got in touch with him in 1999. It turned out they had been following Hol's career since he got involved in the clap skate project and wanted him to set up a whole new product line of skates. "I didn't need much time to make a decision," Hol says about accepting the offer.

Yet he knew he had signed up for a serious challenge; Interraps possessed the patent that basically covered all existing inline racing frames--meaning that he had to come up with something completely new. He started thinking and sketching, and after less than a year of dedicated work, he had the solution--what is now known as the Mogema Dual Box. With his new frame in hand, he had to set himself yet another challenge: "I want to have the world's best athletes skating with my products." He got in touch with the Rollerblade World Team--one of the professional inline skate teams in the circuit--through a colleague. He persuaded them to use Mogema's instead of their traditional frames, and when other athletes saw the team's results using their new frames, they got interested too. In 2002--only 3 years after he made his first sketch--Hol got his success: At the World Inline Championships in France, 45 skaters won their gold, silver, and bronze medals on Mogemas.

Back to Ice Skating

Hol realised that with his design experience, he could go beyond inline skating and fasten his irons. Continuing on recent developments in hockey and figure skates, he invented the narrow shape cross section (NSX), the first Mogema design for ice skates. This was nice, but not yet perfect, according to Hol. So he set to work on the introduction of the "crooked skate," a mechanism that uses the traditional clap skate as a basis but that has a hinge clapping sideways.

Hol puts his success down to listening to other people's opinions, keeping an eye on what is going on in the field, and most importantly, being open-minded. "Respect those who come up with ideas and solutions" would be his advice for anyone thinking of getting into design engineering. He listens carefully to the athletes' feedback and takes it into consideration while developing a new design. Sometimes one of his business partners--mostly the producers of the materials he uses--comes up with an innovative material with potential. He just lets his ideas mature in his mind for a year or two, after which he starts developing a prototype. He's also learned that the racing business is one in which companies come up with prototypes and innovations every season, so he warns that one has to stay sharp in this field.

Commercial Side

Hol is now more focused on the commercial side of business. "There's a time for creating products," he says, "and there's one for earning money." Margin increment, cost/price lowering, and marketing strategy are now key words in his daily working life. About half of his time goes to communication with athletes and producers about new developments, feedback, and eventual problems. His partners and clients are all over the world, from the United States to China.

Future

Inline skating is about to become Olympic, which places it somewhere between mountain biking and road cycling in terms of professionalism. Fifteen years from now, Hol still sees himself working on the general strategy and product development of Sportsline International, which he hopes will remain a leader in speed skating. Still, he wouldn't like to see the company growing into a big organisation. Instead, he would prefer to become active in other sport niches, to keep it all "small and simple." These words, to him, are key to the good development of high-tech products.