Why The Inventor Of Pong Says We're More Creative Now

Back in the day, Nolan Bushnell invented Pong, founded Atari and created Chuck E. Cheese. But now he says that new tools and cultural norms are enabling creativity in ways never before possible - and offers hints on how to make your company more creative.

We spoke on the occasion of the release of Bushnell's new book: Finding the Next Steve Jobswritten with Gene Stone (more on the book's unusual publishing model later).

As many people know, Jobs worked for Bushnell at Atari in the mid 1970s before moving on to Apple. Bushnell uses Jobs as a symbol of creativity at tech companies: "Steve Jobs showed that an innovative company can create the highest market cap company in the world." Despite Jobs' passing in 2011, Bushnell says today's best companies are far ahead of where we used to be.

"In the early days of Atari," Bushnell recalls, "engineers came to work in a coat and tie and were working 9-5." Venture capitalists willing to give cash to help innovative startups were just a tiny niche, he says, "All the real financial clout was controlled by big banks in New York, but now we have vibrant angel investors, Kickstarter and crowdfunding."

And that's only part of the change. Even as we eliminate the gatekeepers, Bushnell contends, the costs of creativity itself are coming down as technological tools get cheaper and more powerful. Individuals and small groups can now shoot a movie or create a software company on their own. "In many cases, that's the most important thing," Bushnell says.

Unleashing Creativity

But there's still a lot more to be done. "The problem isn't creativity," Bushnell explains, "but creating the environment for creatives to work in… too much [good stuff] ends up on the cutting room floor."

"I believe we have literally thousands of Steve Jobses," but we don't empower them to create. "Look at the way we treat creative people! We just have to detoxify our companies and we'll have innovation flowing out of the ground like oil."

Hire Obnoxious People

One key considieration is to value true creative talent over mere niceness. This flies in the face of the "no assholes" rules now gaining popularity The problem, Bushnell says, is that "a lot of really brilliant people are obnoxious. They're used to always being the smartest person in the room and they may treat other people with disdain."

And Bushnell says that separating brilliant and obnoxious from just plain obnoxious is actually easier than you think.

The Importance Of Hobbies

Their contribution is one clue, of course, but Bushnell also suggests looking at what creative types do on their own time. "Enthusiasm is kind of the mitigator" for the obnoxious people, he says.

What you want is someone who truly has the companies interest at heart and just happens to be dismissive of people less capable of achieving those goals.

Bushnell points out that many people used to complain withering criticism from Steve Jobs. But Bushnell adds that it turns out that most of the time, Jobs was right. His victims just didn't like the way he critiziced them.

Today's Most Creative Company?

So who's getting it right today? When asked to name today's most creative company, Bushnell doesn't hesitate:

"Google. There are so many things going on at the Google campus right now that exemplify the right track. A lot of true craziness coming out of that company, but it's crazy like a fox. Autodrive cars? That's going to happen in a short amount of time… and think about what it took! That represents a large corporate commitment."


Book Publishing As Startup

Clearly, Bushnell tried to be creative with his book, as well. Rather than signing with a big publisher or going the self-publishing route espoused by folks like Guy Kawasaki, Bushnell chose to be the first example of a new startup publishing model that distributes the risk and the rewards.

Instead of doing all the work yourself, or having a traditional publisher pull together all the skills needed to put together a book, Net Minds works by trading equity in the project for the required work. Editors, designers, etc. get points, not just cash, and participate in any upside. According to co-founder Tim Sanders, Net Minds has 17 more books in the pipeline - not all of them attached to well-known names like Bushnell. According to Sanders, the team-publishing model lets freelance publishing professionals optimize their available time to earn passive income from successful projects.

Sanders claims to have 400 freelancers signed up, both new players and established veterans like Bushnell's co-author Gene Stone. While Sanders says the company is working on software to appraise a book's commercial potential, it's hard to see how it could pull in top-notch talent for anything but the sexiest, easiest-to-sell projects.

Disclosure: Many years ago, Nolan Bushnell wrote a column for me at Electronic Entertainment magazine.