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Nolan Bushnell: Bringing Atari to the masses

Steve Jobs disliked most of his superiors, but one, in particular, piqued his interest: Nolan Bushnell.

Jobs was drawn to the unique way Bushnell, co-founder of video game pioneer Atari, was forging an entirely new industry in the early 1970s on the success of iconic games like "Pong." Bushnell tasked Steve Jobs with developing a sequel to "Breakout," which was a huge success.

Bushnell took a calculated risk by putting technology in places it had never been before, such as bars and, later, living rooms. Jobs wished to take part.

"If you're truly a radical innovator," Bushnell told Investor's Business Daily, "the more radical the idea, the fewer people will join." "There is no constituency for innovation."

Atari, Bushnell's most well-known company, has earned him the title "Father of Electronic Gaming." He has, however, founded dozens of other businesses, the most well-known of which is the game arcade and pizza parlor Chuck E. Cheese.

Bushnell, 75, has used a combination of innovation, business planning, and leadership to forge a hard-charging path into unfamiliar territory, creating entirely new industries along the way. He believes that by looking at things in new ways, other business leaders can increase their success — and that innovation is something that can be learned rather than something that is born with. Bushnell's business planning recommendations include the following:

Make optimism your default setting:

"Optimism drives entrepreneurship," Bushnell said. Many large corporations are structured to reward those who say no to new ideas, thereby avoiding mistakes. In such an environment, innovation is stifled.

Successful people are those who can make seemingly impossible ideas work. This is especially true today when new technology and innovation have the potential to disrupt an unchanging and stagnant business.

Bushnell recalls Atari's early days as difficult due to a lack of venture capital to keep the company afloat. It required a steady stream of good ideas that could be quickly turned into cash flow. "We had to rely on our wits and our savings," he said. "We were always cash-strapped.

"When you were constantly struggling for cash flow, you felt like you had your hands on the controls very closely," Bushnell recalled. "You must be optimistic in order to drive things that may be a little risky." "The future is perilous."

Success took coming up with a good idea and moving on it quickly. "When I think about something, I have to do it. It's not enough to just think about it," he said.

It is not enough to have a good idea; you must also understand the numbers that enable it to function:

According to his eldest daughter, Alissa Bushnell, that was a lesson Bushnell instilled in his children. In restaurants, he would challenge his young children to estimate how much profit the restaurant made in a day by observing guest patterns and orders coming out of the kitchen. "Whoever gets the answer that's in my head first gets dessert," he'd say, she told IBD.

Learning how to play Go, an ancient Asian board game is one way to improve one's ability to forecast how much money can be made from an idea, according to Bushnell. "This is a game about planning moves five, six, or seven moves ahead," he explained.

Personal philosophy can also assist the mind in focusing on innovation:

Bushnell's worldview is existentialism, with an emphasis on the journey rather than the destination. "You take yourself out of the thick of things and become an observer," he explained. This allows you to consider the situation more creatively.

But it isn't long before Bushnell starts thinking about what comes next. "If you want to live in the future, invent it," he advised.

Nolan Bushnell: Keys


Bushnell forewent his own wages, sometimes for months, in order to launch Atari with little funding because the industry was new and unproven.


Consider how to profit from a brilliant idea, but be prepared to change your strategy if something unexpected occurs.


"The most important result of a new idea is that you get data before everyone else. Even if the data is negative, it is still a data point: That didn't work, but maybe if I do this it will."

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