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Making It

Habitual Entrepreneur Doesn't Stay Put for Long--by Choice

October 01, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Starting a company is rough. Just ask Nolan Bushnell. He's done it 22 times.

The 57-year-old founder of Atari hadn't planned to be a one-man business incubator back in 1972 when he concocted Pong, a simple video arcade game that attracted kids' quarters like a super-magnet. Pong's success led him to launch Atari months later, and for a few years he reigned as "king of the coin-ops."

But when Warner Communications offered him a reported $28 million for his company in 1976, Bushnell, then 33, couldn't say no. He bought a 16-acre spread in Northern California, homes in Paris and Aspen, Colo., and sailed a yacht called Pong. He also searched for his next entrepreneurial slam-dunk, goaded by Warner, which had made him sign an agreement not to compete.

Bushnell thought his salvation would come in the form of a rodent: Chuck E. Cheese, to be exact. In 1978, he launched the Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theaters, which Fortune magazine called "a weird pizza combination."

The chain of restaurants served pizza, offered arcade games and featured performing robots. Many thought it would bomb.

For a time, Bushnell proved them wrong. Sales soared to more than $100 million in three years.

Emboldened by what looked like a second entrepreneurial coup, Bushnell turned his attention to other ventures, neglecting to monitor Chuck E. Cheese's growth. The company's revenue tumbled.

In 1984, after two failed reorganizations in five months, Bushnell resigned as Chuck E. Cheese's chairman.

The company eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, owing its creditors more than $100 million.

Bushnell licked his wounds and reappraised his strengths and weaknesses. "I think I'm a pretty poor manager," he said at the time. He also admitted that he'd gotten derailed by starting too many businesses at once.

Some who have followed Bushnell's 28-year career might compare him to a perennial bachelor who is loath to settle down with one company. Perhaps to foster the simile, Bushnell used to quote Walt Disney: "I'm a honeybee. I like to fly from flower to flower and pollinate them."

The companies he's pollinated have futuristic names: Axlon, Octus, Androbot, Etak, Sente and Catalyst. Their products have ranged from talking teddy bears to computerized maps.

"Once everything is working like a Swiss watch, it's no longer interesting to me," Bushnell said. "At that point, I sell it or turn it over to other management."

Then there's the irresistible siren call of the lucrative new thing.

"When you see an opportunity that no one else sees, you go for it," he said.

What Bushnell's detractors can't take is his visionary genius. He's the father of the video game industry, the elder statesman of Silicon Valley. Those talking teddies he dreamed up in the mid-1980s contained microchips that could respond to children's sounds, a concept embellished upon nearly a decade later by Hasbro, with its smash success, Furbies.

In 1993, he developed software that, at the time, seemed truly novel: It joined computers with telephony, enabling office workers to exchange phone messages, fax data and route calls via their PCs.

These days, Bushnell has returned to his roots--video gaming--with the launch of his 22nd company, Playa del Rey-based Uwink.com.

Founded last year, Uwink.com is introducing Internet-linked coin-operated video games to venues such as coffeehouses, bars, hotels, bowling alleys and airport lounges. Players can engage in what Bushnell describes as "fast, fun three-minute tournaments."

"The people who liked the old, exciting games from years ago are deprived," Bushnell said. "Games today have gotten incredibly complex."

Uwink.com also will release single-player units with games such as Balloon Bash, Love-O-Meter, Mystic Palm Reader, Speed Unscramble and Beer Blast.

Frank O'Connor, editor in chief of Daily Radar Consoles in Brisbane, Calif., said Bushnell's new enterprise indeed may fill an untapped niche in the multibillion-dollar electronic gaming industry.

"When you look at the poker games and other [simple fare] at bars and places like that, you can see there's a gap for more involved Internet games," O'Connor said.

One might think that Bushnell would have launched Uwink.com in Silicon Valley, his spiritual roots. After all, 16 years ago, Bushnell predicted that the Valley's influence would be so profound that all America would soon resemble it.

But Silicon Valley has fallen out of favor with Bushnell.

"The business climate in Los Angeles is superior to Silicon Valley," Bushnell said. "Everything is crazy there now, from real estate prices to the traffic jams--which are worse than L.A.'s--to the half-life of employees. There's no loyalty and no basic sense of fair play."

Bushnell also noted that, although talented L.A. engineers can be had for $80,000, their Silicon Valley counterparts might demand $150,000 for the same jobs "and still have a worse lifestyle because of the high cost of living there."

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