SAN FRANCISCO — When Steve Jobs adopted “think different” as Apple’s mantra in the late 1990s, the company’s ads featured Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Amelia Earhart and a constellation of other starry-eyed oddballs who reshaped society.
Nolan Bushnell never appeared in those tributes, even though Apple was riffing on an iconoclastic philosophy he embraced while running video-game pioneer Atari in the early 1970s. Atari’s refusal to be corralled by the status quo was one of the reasons Jobs went to work there in 1974 as an unkempt, contemptuous 19-year-old. Bushnell says Jobs offended some Atari employees so much that Bushnell eventually told Jobs to work nights when one else was around.
Bushnell, though, says he always saw something special in Jobs, who evidently came to appreciate his eccentric boss, too. The two remained in touch until shortly before Jobs died in October 2011 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.
That bond inspired Bushnell to write a book about the unorthodox thinking that fosters the kinds of breakthroughs that became Jobs’ hallmark as the co-founder and CEO of Apple.
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Apple built its first personal computers with some of the parts from Atari’s early video-game machines. After Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in 1976, Apple also adopted parts of an Atari culture that strived to make work seem like play. That included pizza-and-beer parties and company retreats to the beach.
“I have always been pretty proud about that connection,” Bushnell said in an interview. “I know Steve was always trying to take ideas and turn them upside down, just like I did.”
Bushnell, now 70, could have reaped even more from his relationship with Jobs if he hadn’t turned down an offer from his former employee to invest $50,000 in Apple during its formative stages. Had he seized that opportunity, Bushnell would have owned one-third of Apple, which is now worth about $425 billion — more than any other company in the world.
Bushnell’s newly released book, “Finding The Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Hire, Keep and Nurture Creative Talent,” is the latest chapter in a diverse career that spans more than 20 different startups that he either launched on his own or groomed at Catalyst Technologies, a business incubator that he once ran.
Bushnell’s best-known accomplishments came at Atari, which helped launch the modern video-game industry with the 1972 release of “Pong,” and at the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain, which specializes in pizza, arcade entertainment and musical performances by animatronic animals.
While at Atari, Bushnell began to break the corporate mold, creating a template that is now common through much of Silicon Valley.
He allowed keg parties and hiring live bands to play for his employees after work. He encouraged workers to nap during their shifts, reasoning that a short rest would stimulate more creativity when they were awake. He also promised a summer sabbatical every seven years.
He advertised job openings at Atari with taglines such as, “Confusing work with play every day” and “Work harder at having fun than ever before.”
Bushnell hadn’t been attracting much attention in recent years until Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography on Jobs came out in 2011, just after Jobs’ death.
Suddenly, everyone was asking Bushnell about what it was like to be Jobs’ first boss. Publisher Tim Sanders, of Net Minds, persuaded him to write a book linked to Jobs.
During his second stint at Atari, in 1975, Jobs worked on a “Pong” knock-off called “Breakout” with the help of his longtime friend Wozniak, who did most of the engineering work on the video game, even though he wasn’t being paid by Atari. Jobs left Atari for good in 1976 when he co-founded Apple with Wozniak, who had been designing engineering calculators at Hewlett-Packard.
Jobs and Bushnell kept in touch. After Bushnell moved to Los Angeles with his family 13 years ago, he didn’t talk to Jobs as frequently, though he made a final visit about six months before Jobs died.
There are only a few anecdotes about Bushnell’s interaction with Jobs at Atari and about those meetings around Silicon Valley. The book instead serves as a primer on how to ensure a company doesn’t turn into a mind-numbing bureaucracy that smothers existing employees and scares off rule-bending innovators such as Jobs.
“The truth is that very few companies would hire Steve, even today,” Bushnell writes in his book. “Why? Because he was an outlier. To most potential employers, he’d just seem like a jerk in bad clothing.”
Bushnell says he is worried that Apple is starting to lose the magic touch that Jobs brought to the company.
“To really maintain the cutting edge that they live on, they will have to do some radical things that resonate,” Bushnell said.
“They probably have three more years before they really have to do something big. I hope they are working on it right now.”