My interview with Nolan Bushnell covered so much ground I couldn’t possibly fit it all into a narrative the length of which would be suitable for The Meeting Professional
. The following is a selection of some of those other interesting moments in the conversation. MICHAEL PINCHERA: What can employees do with the insights from your book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs (Sept. 2013, Simon & Schuster), to engender a more creative-minded workplace?
NOLAN BUSHNELL: That’s really hard because sometimes people are just not in the position to be an entrepreneur. It’s hard to talk about the fact that once you’ve got a wife and house and kid and a dog and a boat; it’s really hard to take the risk of being an entrepreneur.
One of the things that people don’t realize is that ideas are too ephemeral in many ways. [Having ideas accepted] is often a communication problem, not an idea problem. Sometimes if you put a little bit of meat around your idea—do a PowerPoint, do a financial projection—managers will, at the very least, know that they’re saying “no” to a well-thought-out idea. You see, good managers don’t want to say “no”; they want to be open to ideas. But they’re often busy. So they don’t really have time to evaluate new ideas as much as they should. If you can take some of the work away, the chance of getting a “yes” to pursue is increased.
Another interesting [option]: If you come up with a project or idea, ask your manager to release it so that you can do it [on your own], or you can sell it to another company…something like that. This is what I call the “hostage technique.” You’d be surprised how much a manager looking through the eyes of competing in the marketplace against one of their competitors changes their view of how to look at [your ideas/projects]. Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s defined so many people’s childhoods. Who/what defined your childhood?
HAM radio pretty much. There was a HAM radio operator down the street named Chet Ashby. The real genesis was my third-grade teacher who assigned me the “magic science box” to do demonstrations for the class on electricity. I did it and was so fascinated that when I got home from school that day, I set up a card table in the corner of my room, got every flashlight and battery and piece of wire and old light switch that I could find and started tinkering—and I never stopped. What was the first thing you did that made you think, “Wow, I can make some awesome things”?
OK, this was in Utah, in the cold weather, and I made an electric coat: I built a flashlight into my coat. I hooked the wires up so that I could walk around and see where I was going at night—and I thought it was cute. And then I painted a light bulb red and put it on the back of my coat so that people wouldn’t bump into me if they were walking. I realize now it was really stupid, but I thought it was really cool. How old were you?
Probably eight. In that case, it was very cool. What inspires you now?
I’m always fascinated by robotics. I have design on top of design on top of design of a personal robot that I want in my home, running around my house. I’ve actually tried it a couple of times and the technology hasn’t been right. But I think the technology is almost right. And I just feel like I’m going to have to pursue that one of these days if somebody doesn’t beat me to it.
I also think that body implants are kind of on their way. The whole idea of health being monitored 24/7 subcutaneously is an interesting step. If you can measure [health], I think you can fix some lifestyle issues that people are having right now. There are a lot of things that are really fascinating to me. Describe the place in which you are the most productive? What’s around you? Why does that setting help?
Absolutely. I’ve always had a man cave. And I’m serious. I’m surrounded right now by stuff. People have said that if I wanted to, I could build a space shuttle right now with the stuff I have on hand. Integrated circuits, transistors, soldering irons, bolts, nuts, glue guns, test equipment and, of course, my computers, and I just love it here. Even though I may not touch the stuff for a year, I know it’s there whenever I want to make something. [Then he questions me.]
I can put together, pretty simply, a little camera that looks at an audience, and if the convention planner would print one side of the program red and the other side of the program yellow, I could hook it up so that the whole audience could play Pong—right side of the audience against the left—with yellow being paddle up and red being paddle down. And it’s a hoot, it’s really funny. It averages the votes of each side and you can do all kinds of voting things like that. Do you think that would be interesting for people as a way to get involved in voting and some of that other stuff through audience response? I think that’s more interesting than having people submit text responses and seeing numbers on a screen.
I’ve been thinking of doing that, but what I don’t want to do is be known as the guy with the gimmick. I don’t know. Might be interesting. Do you have any other thoughts on non-typical audience engagement?
Oh yeah, there are all kinds of things you can do with sound. Try to get people to whistle or clap in unison. For example, what if you got people to clap but out of sequence, so that a clap off the beat is a vote for something and a clap on the beat is a vote against something. You’d be surprised how hard that is to do when everyone is clapping in some kind of unison. Sounds a bit chaotic.
It’s a fun exercise.