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Nolan Bushnell: Bringing Atari to the masses

Steve Jobs didn't like many bosses, 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 on the success of iconic games like "Pong" in the early 1970s. Bushnell tasked Steve Jobs with creating a follow-up game called "Breakout," which was a huge success.

It was just one calculated risk taken by Bushnell in putting technology in places it had never been before, such as bars and, later, living rooms. Jobs wanted to be a part of it.

"If you're truly a radical innovator, the more radical the idea, the fewer people will join," Bushnell told Investor's Business Daily. "Innovation doesn't have a constituency."

Bushnell's most well-known company is Atari, for which he has been dubbed the "Father of Electronic Gaming." However, he has founded dozens of other businesses with varying degrees of success, the most well-known of which is the game arcade and pizza parlor Chuck E. Cheese.

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

Make optimism your default:

"Entrepreneurship is driven by optimism," Bushnell said. Many large companies are set up to reward those who say no to new ideas and perhaps avoid mistakes from being made. Innovation is quashed in such an environment.

Those who can make seemingly impossible ideas work are successful. This is especially true today when new technology and innovation have the potential to disrupt a stagnant and unchanging business.

Bushnell recalls Atari's early days as difficult because the company lacked venture capital to keep it afloat. It required a consistent flow of good ideas that could be quickly converted into cash flow. "We had to live by our wits and our savings," he explained. "We were always short on cash.

"You felt like you had your hands on the controls very closely when you were constantly struggling for cash flow," Bushnell recalled. "You need to have the optimism to drive things that may be a little risky. The future is risky."

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.

Having a good idea isn't enough; you must understand the numbers behind it:

That was a lesson Bushnell instilled in his children, according to his eldest daughter, Alissa Bushnell. He would challenge his young children at restaurants to estimate how much profit the restaurant made in a day by studying guest patterns and orders coming out of the kitchen. "The first one to get the answer that's in my head 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.

Innovation can also be helped by having a personal philosophy:

Bushnell has adopted existentialism as his worldview, emphasizing the journey rather than the destination. "You take yourself out of the thick of things and put yourself in the role of observer," he explained. This allows you to think more creatively about the situation.

But it isn't long before Bushnell begins to consider what comes next. "Invent it if you want to live in the future," he advised.

Nolan Bushnell: Keys

Overcame: Bushnell forewent his own wages, sometimes for months, in order to launch Atari with very little funding because the sector was young and unproven.

Lesson: Consider how to make money from a brilliant concept, but be ready to adjust your strategy if something unexpected happens.

Quote: "Sometimes the most important outcome of a new idea is you get data before everyone else. That data, even if negative, is a data point: That didn't work, but maybe if I do this it will."


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