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New book shares insights from Steve Jobs' 1st boss

Friday - 3/29/2013, 9:32am  ET

In this photo taken Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013, Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari poses for a photo at "Two-Bits-Circus," a Los Angeles idea factory focused on software, hardware and machines. Bushnell was the first guy to give Steve Jobs his first full-time job in Silicon Valley at Atari. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

MICHAEL LIEDTKE
AP Technology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- 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 Inc. 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.

He has often pursued ideas before the technology needed to support them was advanced enough to create a mass market. Bushnell financed Etak, an automobile mapping system created in 1983 by the navigator of his yacht and later sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Bushnell also dabbled in electronic commerce during the 1980s by launching ByVideo, which took online orders through kiosks set up in airports and other locations. In his most costly mistake, Bushnell lost nearly all of a $28 million investment in Androbot, another 1980s-era startup. It developed 3-foot-tall robots that were supposed to serve the dual role of companion and butler. (Bushnell relied on Apple's computers to control the early models.)

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. It's an odyssey that led actor Leonardo DiCaprio to obtain the film rights to Bushnell's life for a possible movie starring DiCaprio in the lead role.

While at Atari, Bushnell began to break the corporate mold, creating a template that is now common through much of Silicon Valley. He allowed employees to turn Atari's lobby into a cross between a video game arcade and the Amazon jungle. He started holding 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." When job applicants came in for interviews, he would ask brain-teasing questions such as: "What is a mole?"; "Why do tracks run counter-clockwise?" and "What is the order of these numbers: 8, 5, 4, 9, 1, 7, 6, 3, 2?"

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. It reminded readers of Bushnell's early ties to the man behind the Macintosh computer, iPod, iPhone and iPad.

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