Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's, gave the late Apple founder his first job. Here, Bushnell shares his tips on finding (and keeping) brilliant oddballs.
There many things for which Nolan Bushnell deserves credit. In 1972, for one, he and co-founder Ted Dabney launched Atari, one of the world's most iconic gaming companies. Five years later, Bushnell started Chuck E. Cheese's. Since then, he's helped launched more than 20 other companies.
But one of the lesser known accomplishments of the 70-year-old entrepreneur's extensive career is the fact that he discovered the late, great Steve Jobs, giving him his first job at Atari back in 1974. Jobs was not what most hiring managers would call a desirable candidate, Bushnell says. He was, unfriendly, demanding, and left lots to be desired in the way of grooming. But he had all the passion in the world, and Bushnell had long taken pride in hiring passionate oddballs. They are the ones, he says, who build great companies.
But finding (and retaining) those people is no easy task. In Bushnell's new book Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Keep and Nurture Talent, he offers business owners advice on how to make their companies welcoming places for untraditional employees like Jobs. I recently spoke with Bushnell why weirdos make the best employees and what entrepreneurs can do to keep them on their teams.
Get rid of rules.
Often, a company changes so quickly that rules become outdated and unnecessary, inhibiting the creative process. Steve Jobs, for instance, used to insist on sleeping at the office, which was, at the time, against the rules because he would set off the after-hours alarm system in the Atari office. Bushnell realized, however, that there was no need to keep the alarm on when there were overnight guards on duty. Bushnell changed the rule, allowed Jobs to sleep at the office, and kept a valuable employee who might otherwise have left.
"It's too easy to pass rules," Bushnell says. "I think that the really dynamic nature of change is fettered by rules."
Hire for passion, not credentials.
"Experience solving old problems doesn't say much, because old skills don't necessarily approximate new needs," Bushnell says.
A better indicator of an all-star employee is someone who is passionate not just about their job, but also about their hobbies. Bushnell remembers Jobs as one of the most intense people he ever knew, and it was that intensity that convinced him to hire him in the first place.
To gauge passion in a potential hire, Bushnell recommends asking "deep questions" about what a person does outside of work. If the person has true passions beyond the job, Bushnell says, "they'll light up in a way that you can't fake."
Don't disregard obnoxious people.
Jobs was an infamously prickly person, and that attitude could easily be a turn-off in a new hire. Bushnell insists it's an advantage.
"You want your company to be a little bit prickly," he says. "Everybody standing around singing 'Kumbaya' means you probably have a homogenous company. Homogeneity means there's going to be consensus. Innovation, in general, has no consensus, because almost everybody will reject a true innovation."
He remembers how hard Steve Jobs fought to get Apple into music, even though plenty of people thought the notion of a computer company taking on the music industry was crazy.
"These innovations take the force of will of a handful of people, and sometimes only one," Bushnell says. "Sometimes in order to get those things through, the person has to be persistent, which becomes obnoxious to the people standing around singing 'Kumbaya.'"
Party with your people.
Atari was famous for its Friday afternoon keg parties, which were initially created to celebrate meeting sales quotas, but eventually became a bi-monthly occurrence. The parties, Bushnell says, did more than convince employees that Atari was a great place to work. They also led to great new ideas, because people were less afraid of speaking freely.
"The company that parties together opens up time to talk about business in a non-structured way," he says. "When you're at a cocktail party, the dynamics are different. Communication is less structured and, therefore, more honest."
Another Atari tradition was the Turkey Award, a prize that went to whoever had the biggest screw up. It wasn't meant to embarrass employees. Instead, Bushnell says, it was intended to celebrate risk-taking, and remind employees that failing is not the end of the world, as long as the intention was good.
"It's okay to screw up if it's the right kind of screw up," Bushnell says. "That's when people think it's an idea that could work, not necessarily that it will work. And if it doesn't, you're forgiven of your sins and can move forward."