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Nolan Bushnell is a technology pioneer, entrepreneur, and scientist. He is the Founder of Atari Corporation and Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater. He has also founded numerous other companies, including Catalyst Technologies, Etak, and Androbot. Nolan’s most recent venture is his company, BrainRush, which is dedicated to teaching academic subjects at over 10 times the speed in classrooms with over 90 percent retention.

In 2009, Nolan was honored with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Fellowship Award (BAFTA). He also received a LARA award from the German Academy of Entertainment, was featured in The New Yorker, was inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame, and was named one of Newsweek’s “50 Men that Changed America,” among many other accolades.


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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Nolan Bushnell talks about his favorite games and templates created through BrainRush
  • What was it like to work with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and why did Nolan turn down Steve Jobs’ offer of one-third of Apple for $50K?
  • Nolan discusses his background and his past entrepreneurial ventures
  • How did Nolan launch — and grow — Atari?
  • The big mistakes people make with video game companies
  • Why Chuck E. Cheese began — to offer a place for kids to play video games
  • The big lessons Nolan learned from founding Atari and Chuck E. Cheese — and how he’s translating that into BrainRush
  • How Nolan played a hand at the beginning of Pixar with Kadabrascope
  • What’s on the horizon for Nolan and the rest of the technology industry?
  • Nolan discusses his low points, accomplishments, and future goals
  • Nolan shares a fun fact that most people don’t know about him

In this episode…

Nolan Bushnell is an entrepreneur who many consider to be the “founding father” of the modern gaming industry. He founded many successful businesses, including Atari, Chuck E. Cheese, and BrainRush. He also worked with Steve Jobs — and was even offered 33 percent of Apple’s stake. So, how did Nolan come by these opportunities? And what advice does he have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

According to Nolan, anyone can achieve their goals by taking action and trying new things. This can help you build your brain and engage with your surroundings in a powerful way. For Nolan, it taught him how to manage the exponential growth of Atari, market to new places, and push through the challenges of starting a company.

In this episode of the Inspired Insider Podcast, Dr. Jeremy Weisz is joined by Nolan Bushnell, the Founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese. Nolan shares the high and low points of his business ventures, his response to Steve Jobs’ incredible offer, and his strategies for successfully growing and scaling your company. Stay tuned!

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Episode Transcript


Jeremy Weisz 0:13

Dr. Jeremy Weisz here and founder of inspired insider calm where I talk with inspirational entrepreneurs and leaders and how they overcome big challenges in life and business. Today we have one of the legends of technology and business Nolan Bushnell. Nolan founded both Atari and Chuck E. Cheese Pizza. He’s been inducted into the video game Hall of Fame and was named one of Newsweek’s 50 men who changed America. He started more than 20 companies and is one of the founding fathers of the video game industry. His latest venture is called BrainRush that uses video game technology that incorporates real brain science. He hired Steve Jobs back in the Atari days, and is the author of finding the next Steve Jobs, how to find keep and nurture talent. Nolan, thanks for joining me. My pleasure, good fun to be here. You know, I listened to that a few times before we talked and it’s a must listen to I listen to it must read. And I want to ask a few questions about that. And I’m not gonna I don’t think we should divulge the answer. But one of my favorite parts were the riddles that you include in there. One of anything that starts with three women in a bathing suit, and I don’t think we should reveal what the riddle is. People will have to read it or listen to it to find out what that riddle is. But But that is a good one book. Yeah, that’s a good one. I appreciate that. Yeah. So I want to I want to hear about you know, obviously talk about that target is the Chuck E. Cheese date I want to hear about recently or lately. So I want to know what your favorite game you ever produced past. And then present and BrainRush.

Nolan Bushnell 1:50

The, I guess the game templates. BrainRush is more about a template that can can teach anything. Yeah. And I did a game called the template that is called sequences where any time the order of something is important. That is the template to use. And it turns out that a tremendous amount of education is about what what’s the order, grammar, even spelling, chemistry, or water physics, a tremendous amount of mathematics is ordering objects and sets. And so I felt that it was kind of a neat thing to have a general purpose tool that would allow that kind of learning. Yeah,

Jeremy Weisz 2:38

so what about past your favorite past games that you’ve produced?

Nolan Bushnell 2:44

I think I think I really was happy with breakout that happened to be the one that Steve Jobs did with me. And so you know, I did, I did the primary architecture and Steven jobs and Wozniak basically did the articulation on the hardware. So tell

Jeremy Weisz 3:06

us what was it like working with the two of them on that project?

Nolan Bushnell 3:09

Oh, great. Fun. Steve was always a real giggle you know, Steve was one of these guys. If, if you if he liked you, there was no one more charming? No, no, one more fun. Was neck at the time was very, very shy. You know, if I’d asked him a question, he just stared his feet. But jobs and I became kind of a friend. I mean, Isaacson’s book, told me that he that jobs considered me one of his big mentors. Yeah, I actually realized that before the book. Oh, really. I just kind of thought we were friends and we hung out. But, you know, I was my wife says, you know, I’m not I’m really clueless when it comes to picking up social codes.

Jeremy Weisz 4:09

She loves you anyways. So, but you What was it like when you first met Steve because you hired him?

Nolan Bushnell 4:16

I actually didn’t Al Alcorn my head of engineering hired. But he made himself aware to me very quickly and and I was always in the engineering lab. And so, you know, he came into my office one time grandiose plan and, you know, we, we developed friendship.

Jeremy Weisz 4:39

Did you know at that time that he would become what what people know him today?

Nolan Bushnell 4:46

Of course not. No. No, I thought he was an extraordinary human being. I always thought he was little bit. I don’t know. I didn’t feel like he had the question. Common sense to be a good CEO? And I think that was as much to the fact that he was 19 and 20 years old. Sure, yeah. was anything else. Nobody has common sense at 20. But more than that, I mean, I clearly didn’t see it. Otherwise, I would have taken him up when I was offered a third of Apple computer for $50,000. Which I turned down.

Jeremy Weisz 5:23

I read about that. I regret that. Why did you turn it down? At the time? Cuz you would have owned a third of apple?

Nolan Bushnell 5:30

Yeah. I mean, we’d have been diluted, I wouldn’t have been ratted now. But I think it was two or three reasons. One, I wasn’t sure that he was a great businessman at the time. Second, I know that we were at Atari starting to think about doing a personal computer at the time. And I thought that would be a conflict of interest.

Jeremy Weisz 5:54

I say, yeah. So I always like to include a fun fact. And a fun fact about you on is, I mean, there’s a number of them. You like puns, you go snowboarding, but you have eight kids. So you can you tell us a little bit about raising eight kids and how you incorporate the entrepreneurship spirit in them.

Nolan Bushnell 6:17

We were a family of projects, we were always working on things. And I gave kids my kids access to I had a little metal shop and a little, you know, carpentry shop, I’d let them do anything that they couldn’t cut their fingers off on. I had to be there if they could cut their fingers off. Yeah. We had an electronics lab and and then off in the corner of that there was a chemistry set out, set up so that I mean, this was serious stuff. Bunsen burners and yeah, reports and diffraction grating diffraction elements, you know, and so all the kids grew up knowing how to use those tools. And kids don’t know the difference between toys and lab equipment. into them. Yeah. And so it, they always thought that it was fun to go up and dad’s lab and make stuff. And in some cases, blow stuff up.

Jeremy Weisz 7:21

Through your wife love that. Not too much. So you grew up in Utah? What were some of the entrepreneur projects you had from a young age?

Nolan Bushnell 7:31

Well, I was a ham radio operator, I started very young. And, you know, I wired up all my friends house with a, with a wired telephone system that I that I created using speakers and wires and batteries and stuff like that. I had probably the first speakerphone in Utah, I mean that I, you know, my mom was always afraid because in those days, you weren’t allowed to even put your own extension, you know, unless you were there. And of course, I figured out how the how the phone company could track it. And so I disconnected the ringer, because then they could tech test the ringer. And if there was too much impedance, they knew you had an extension. So I had three extensions in my room money. And but to give you an idea how crazy it was in those days, my friends, and I’ll come over. And since nobody knew about a speakerphone, one of us would get the guy’s girlfriend on the phone and talk

Jeremy Weisz 8:36

I knew girls like we’d be involved. Yes, yeah. You know,

Nolan Bushnell 8:39

and so that was all kind of cool. Oh, one thing that I did, I covered my ceiling with burnt out fluorescent lights that I got down behind the grocery store. Okay. I mean, literally covered the sounds dangerous. But go ahead. Yes. Well, what you do is you wire them all in series, and then you ground one end, and then you hook your other end up to your big long wiring antenna. As soon as you have a lightning storm. Your whole ceiling lashed every time just with the the induced electricity.

Jeremy Weisz 9:14

That’s cool. That’s pretty cool. Yeah. What were the lessons you learn from your parents? Because obviously, you had this inventive entrepreneurial nature from a young age.

Nolan Bushnell 9:23

Well, my dad was a contractor. And so we always had, you know, the woodpile and tools and and I had a very rich environment of tools. I mean, we weren’t rich, we’re just middle class use this meant contractor and my mother was a schoolteacher. But, you know, later on when he did his only business, my mom would get the books and you know, it was a family business. And I think that the main thing was that it wasn’t so much learning from them as much as the fact they tolerated my eccentricities. I mean, how many parents wouldn’t let Are you there? Their 12 year old to put a red and white stripe pole on the top of their house with a with a flashing red light on top for an antenna Pole? I mean, you know, there’s not a lot, not many No, not many, you know. So I think I’m looking back on that. And I’m saying, you know, my parents were really cool. Yeah.

Jeremy Weisz 10:19

Yeah, for sure. So what did the early days look like of your career? Because I was reading one of the big things that I surprised that surprised me with the research was that you were towards the bottom of your class, which I would not have expected.

Nolan Bushnell 10:34

Well, I I always took school a little bit with a grain of salt. Yeah. I was more interested in what I wanted to learn rather than getting the particular grades. Yeah, like a lot of a lot of the classes I thought were stupid. Yeah. And, and a lot of times, I’d get interested in something. And I would be sitting in a classroom that for which I wasn’t signed up for, instead of going to the one that I was summed up for, and just stuff like that. Plus, I always put myself through school. And so I worked. Very, you know, when I became manager of the games department at the amusement park, my spring quarter was really, I had to be there probably 50 hours a week. And so that would tend to cut in Yeah. cuts into your schools. Yeah.

Jeremy Weisz 11:36

So then what were we doing right before Atari, before you started Atari?

Nolan Bushnell 11:41

I was, well, there’s two phases. I, I graduated college, came to Ampex, which was pretty cool company at the time. First, you know, they invented slow motion video, the first video tape recorder and then I then I worked on this thing called space war, which turned into Computer Space licenced to Nadine, so I went from Ampex to Nadine, Nadine was kind of a screwed up little company. And, and that gave me the confidence to go out on my own starting Atari.