Nolan Bushnell and Gene Stone's new book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Hire, Keep and Nurture Creative Talent tackles a daunting quest, but then again, Bushnell's not an ordinary guy himself. Having started both Atari Games and Chuck E. Cheese, Bushnell knows creativity, innovation, user experience (and fun!
Many successful companies went out of business because they were not able to change with the times. Other companies, however, have been able to completely reinvent themselves -- and prosper as a result. For example, jeweler Tiffany started out as a stationary store. Telephone maker Nokia was once a paper mill. Conglomerate-holding Berkshire Hathaway began as a textile manufacturer. Kutol Products was a Cincinnati-based soap company that manufactured a wallpaper cleaner as well; the cleaner business began to fade, so the company turned the product into a cute little toy, which they eventually called Play-Doh (which has sold over two billion cans). Then there's the 3M company in Minnesota (which began life as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, selling the mineral corundum), which has designed and brought 55,000 different products to market. The company basically reinvents itself every decade or so: About one-third of the company's annual revenue is derived from products that are less than five years old.After reading the book, I sent Bushnell some questions about his experience with Steve Jobs, his companies, and how other companies can succeed at innovation: You seem to have admired Steve for sharing some of the same qualities of your own. What about him resonated with you? Steve had a very, very intense desire to do big things, to be important, to do important things. He saw his role in the personal computer business almost as the cult leader. He wanted to create this cult of people who are enabled and made more productive. I like that. I remember the Chuck E. Cheese of my youth as a total positive experience. Like entering another world. What were some of things your company considered to create such a profound experience for customers? We wanted to take a no-holds-barred attitude to make it fun for kids. We felt that most of the restaurants that they were dragged to were totally focused on the parents. If you looked at a typical kid in a parent's restaurant, they were miserable. Having to sit still, they couldn't spring and shout. They didn't have anything to do. They were massively bored. I said, "Okay, if we can get something where the kids choose, we want to be chosen a hundred percent of the time." Parents aren't going to go a hundred percent, but we wanted a total no-holds-barred kid experience. We just said, "What do the kids like? Kids like pizza. Okay, our pizza is going to be great. Kids like a lot of noise. We're going to be okay with noise. Kids like a lot of games. Then we're going to be okay with games." It just went on and on and on. In your opinion, what could Steve Jobs have done better? I believe that there was a vacuum in the people that he gave credit to. Early on, it was very clear who the Macintosh team was. Then it stopped. What characteristics can companies look for in employees that point towards Steve's abilities, and how can they work on developing those? The most important thing is to look for the intensity, the passion. If you have passionate people, they will come up with ideas that are very important. Also, be willing to hire people that are a little bit strange. If you want out-of-the-box thinking, you want it to come from out-of-the-box people. But then nurture the creatives, give them scope. Let them work on ideas that are maybe a little stranger than you normally would. Google works 20 percent of the time on weird products, anything they want. At least do 5 or 10 percent. What was something Atari did that was missing from other technology manufacturing companies? How might companies use this practice today? We really empowered the individual. We tried to say, "We don't care when you work, how long you work, what you do, just get the job done and we'll be happy." We call that the total meritocracy. That led to no dress code, no time clock; a whole bunch of things that ultimately have been the hallmark of Silicon Valley. When I started Atari, everybody, all the engineers were expected to come in a coat and tie. Engineers never should have had to do that and we got rid of that almost immediately. Beyond helping find the next genius innovator, what is the biggest thing you hope people and companies learn from the experiences you share in the book? To say yes and to do more little projects that can turn into huge ones.