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Atari founder on venture capital documentary, Steve Jobs

January 17, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Atari founder Nolan Bushnell speaking at the Maker Faire in 2011.
Atari founder Nolan Bushnell speaking at the Maker Faire in 2011. (Chris O'Brien/Los Angeles…)

My experience over the years is that Nolan Bushnell, the guy who founded Atari and once hired Steve Jobs, doesn't talk to the press much. So when the opportunity to talk to him came up, I jumped at it.

"I basically look at PR as something you do if there's an object in mind," Bushnell said during a phone interview this week. "But my ego doesn’t need it."

Fair enough. But Bushnell does have an object in mind. In fact, two of them. 

The first is a documentary that's going to be airing on various PBS stations over the next few weeks called, "Something Ventured: Risk, Reward And The Original Venture Capitalists." The film is a tribute to the pioneers of venture capital. Bushnell began as a consultant to the film, but later agreed to also go on camera. 

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Bushnell's second project is a book that will be published next month called "Finding The Next Steve Jobs." Bushnell famously hired the young Jobs in 1974, a time when the future Apple founder was in his heavy spiritual exploration phase, shaving his head, traveling to India. Not the button-down corporate type by any measure. 

The book, Bushnell said, explores the value of hiring the different, the offbeat, the unusual. Bushnell said Jobs was quirky, yes, but it also allowed him to see problems in a different way, and find different solutions. 

While Jobs' creativity was balanced with a notorious temper, Bushnell said he never experienced the latter.

"I never, ever, saw the evil Steve Jobs," Bushnell said. "He was always the most well-mannered and respectful guy I knew. And we got to be pretty good friends. He didn't suffer fools gladly. I guess he didn't think I was a fool."

Bushnell got involved with the "Something Ventured" movie a couple of years ago. He overcame his usual reluctance for such projects because to this day he finds the story of those early days of Silicon Valley and the venture capital industry so remarkable. 

"I think 'Something Ventured' is a nice piece because it celebrates venture capital in a unique and powerful way," Bushnell said. "Because we were all trying to figure out what was going on back then. There were no templates."  

Atari was founded in 1972. Bushnell said initially he and his partners bootstrapped the company. Venture capital was still a fairly young industry at that point.

As the company expanded, however, Bushnell said it eventually raised about $30 million to $40 million in capital from a handful of firms, including Sequoia Capital via partner Don Valentine, InterWest Partners, and the Mayfield Fund. 

The movie, Bushnell said, offers a couple of important lessons for today's entrepreneurs who might take the existence of such risk-taking investors for granted.

"What I learned was how really important the marriage of capital and ideas are," he said. "Radical innovation is difficult to fund. It seems scary. And the really radical things seem even more scary.

"We know now the nanotechnology industry is going through challenges because no one is making money on it. And yet we know it’s going to be as important as silicon. Same thing for robotics. It’s going to be bigger than the PC business. But it's hard to get funding today."

Bushnell noted the VC industry itself is in turmoil, facing weak returns and consolidation. 

"Angel investing and crowd-funding and Kickstarter-type operations," Bushnell said. "These capabilities are totally grabbing the bottom tier of the pyramid. So it’s going to be interesting to see where that takes us. Because it's going to drastically change things."

While it's been more than 40 years since the launch of Atari, Bushnell is still in the game, so to speak. We ended our conversation by discussing his latest venture: Brainrush.

Serving as chairman and chief executive officer, Bushnell said the company is focused on using the game mechanics that make video games so popular and applying them to education. Bushnell describes the company as "Wikipedia meets Zynga."

The company has been in a development phase, refining its system and curriculum with a pilot involving more than 100,000 students.  

Bushnell said the company will take the wraps off in April or May, and make service more widely available. But he's convinced that Brainrush will remembered as his biggest and best idea. 

"We've found the key to being able to teach kids quickly," he said. "Using game mechanics, they create and accelerate and understand the information better. This can be huge." 

"Something Ventured" airs on KOCE on Saturday at 7 p.m.; KVCR on Feb. 7 at 9:30 p.m.; and PBS SoCal World on Feb. 22 at 5:30 p.m.

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Follow me on Twitter @obrien.

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