C2SV Recap: Steve Wozniak and Nolan Bushnell on Life in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs

by Jennifer Wadsworth | September 28, 2013

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Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and Apple’s Steve Wozniak shared a stage for the first time ever (or maybe since the 1980s, but they can’t quite remember) to talk tech, the future and how to recognize genius in other people.

“You’ve probably already hired the next Steve Jobs, but all of their work product is ending up on the cutting room floor,” said Bushnell Friday at a packed Friday afternoon C2SV panel moderated by event founder and Metro publisher Dan Pulcrano.

Dropout geniuses

Bushnell, who also founded Chuck E. Cheese’s and whose book “Finding the Next Steve Jobs” comes out this fall, was one of Silicon Valley’s first celebrity serial entrepreneurs whose company gave Jobs his first professional gig as a technician creating a circuit board for the arcade game “Breakout.” He offered the high-energy Reed College dropout $100 for each chip he nixed in the device and hired “Woz,” Jobs’ Homestead High School computer whiz pal, to help him out. The pair scaled down the number of chips to 50, a design so tight it couldn’t be reproduced on an assembly line.

That from a couple of college dropouts typical hiring managers might’ve passed up in a job interview. You’ve got to give passion precedence over credentials, Wozniak and Bushnell said.

“If you don’t have passion, you don’t have anything,” said Bushnell. “Everything else can be taught.”

Not to mention self-taught. Jobs started tinkering with electronics with Wozniak way back in grade school. He knew how to build things, to turn his ideas into reality.

“Steve came into my office one day,” Bushnell recounted. “He’d probably been working there for a couple of days and he told me, ‘Nobody knows how to solder here. This stuff is going to fall apart in three weeks. This is shit.”

It was Jobs’ intensity that drew him to the top and endeared him to people in charge, he added. And it was the irreverence and casualness of startup culture that appealed to guys like Jobs, who used to get in trouble at school for screwing around, and got them to stick around.

“Happiness is underrated in corporate culture,” said Bushnell. “If you have happy employees, and intensity, you’ll innovate.”

Intensity cuts both ways, though, Wozniak added. That drive in Jobs rubbed some people the wrong way. Maybe he was abrupt with some people, but it’s a side of the man Bushnell and Wozniak said they’d never seen.

“I just heard of it,” Wozniak said, adding that his late colleague considered people either a white hat or a black hat and treated you accordingly.

Freedom to fail

Intensity also engenders its fair share of failures, which isn’t much talked about, the speakers added. Jobs was bad with computers. Intensity took away from his patience despite a fascination with all things Zen, which he struck up during a psychedelics-fueled post-college spiritual coming-of-age in India. He failed at Apple III, Lisa and the Mac.

“He never had much success with computers, just personal electronics,” said Wozniak.

Innovation might require that kind of impatience, sometime a breakneck pace, Bushnell said.

“If you’re not skiing fast, you’re not learning, and if you are, you’re going to fall,” he quipped.

Wozniak reflected on his own failures, so-called because some never became commercially successful.

“What if you make a really great product and it doesn’t’ sell and it folds?” he noted. “It was still a great product.”

Take the Segueway, for example, that uber-dorky scooter robot everyone loves to hate. Wozniak, who was the first person ever to buy it, loves the thing un-ironically (it even merits a mention in his Twitter bio). But for whatever reason, the masses never fell for it, despite it being well-designed and practical.

A string of remarkable failures preceded one of the biggest corporate turnarounds in history. Jobs, returning from a stint at Pixar, assumed leadership of the corporation he co-founded with Wozniak but later left, transforming it into the most valuable publicly traded company in the world. It was under his leadership that the company developed the iMac, iTunes, the iPod, iPhone and iPad. He introduced Apple retail stores, the App Store and the iTunes Store– basically everything that defines the brand.

The future of innovation

Since Jobs’ death in 2011, however, the company’s lost its bleeding-edge lead in the industry, Bushnell remarked.

“What I’m afraid of is that Apple has lost its edge,” he said. “I can think of 50 things they should come out with already.”

Not just Apple, though, but also the rest of the planet.

“The world is not moving as fast as it should,” he said. “We are 10 years behind where we should be technologically.”

Bushnell, now 70 years old, hopes things will hurry the hell up.

“I want to live in the future and I don’t have that much time left,” he said, prompting an applause break. “So get off your asses and build some great things.”

Figure it out for yourself

An audience member asked if it’s at least partly the fault of modern education that more people aren’t driven to invent. Wozniak said nope–it’s always been up to the individual. School, he said, is like a daycare, a holding spot in life while you figure out a passion and come up with something bigger to do.

“That’s what it was for me, anyway,” he said.

For Bushnell, too. The guy just wanted to make games, so he moved to South Bay, where he came up with “Pong,” the world’s first digital addiction. The game spawned “Pong hustlers,” he said, people who’d make $50,000 a year playing the back-and-forth paddle game.

That willingness to follow up on an impulse, an idea, embodies the ethos of Silicon Valley, which started when people who had a better idea would break away from the companies that employed them to start one of their own. Atari was founded that way–with $250 from Bushnell and $250 from his partner Ted Dabney. Bushnell started dozens of companies in his lifetime–his latest an educational game startup called Brainrush. He can’t help it, he says, it’s that sense of having a great idea and knowing that you’re probably the only one who’ll do anything with it.

“I’ve never met an idea I didn’t like,” he said.

The valley has retained that sense of independence, but it’s all grown up now. Even tiny independent startups carry an air of sophistication. There are venture capitalists to impress now, which weren’t a thing when Bushnell started in the ‘70s. VC’s didn’t express any interest in Atari until it already made $30 million sales, he said.

“Is it the same Silicon Valley?” he asked. “It’s still the same, but more mature. It was the wild, wild west then … that ethos really permeated the valley in a way that was quite surprising.”

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