What I learned from Bob Freed, Robert Noyce, Jerry Sanders, and Don Valentine.
It is lonely at the top. Anyone that starts a business feels like a bit of an imposter. There are so many things to do and problems unique to the top position that the CEO has never solved before. It is easy to think that because no business like yours has ever been done before that your problems are unique. They are not. Most of the things that early entrepreneurs do have been done by every startup and there are many that have gone through it many times.
That's where mentoring comes into play. I have had the good fortune to have a whole cadre of very smart business people that were willing to help me. To succeed, you too must find good mentors. While my list of mentors could fill a book, I though I would mention four to give them the credit they richly deserve for their help with me in the formative stages.
Bob Freed was my boss at Lagoon, an amusement park just north of Salt Lake City. I was a game manager ther during summers while pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Utah. He was a no-nonsense guy that gave me a great deal of latitude within the company, and allowed me to experiment with both the midway games and employee-incentive programs. What he made me adhere to was a sense of keeping the numbers within certain tolerable ranges. I knew that as long as my division made more money than before I was on safe ground. He ran a meritocracy; if you got better people, and produced better results, he would leave you alone. I have always tried to instill that same philosophy at my companies.
Next, I'd like to talk about Robert Noyce. He was a great guy and one of the founders of Intel. He was very free with his time and taught by telling stories. He gave me a lot of confidence because he would always have a story about how Intel had survived some difficulty when it was at a similar stage as Atari was at the time. For example, I remember one story he told me about a time when he shut down Intel's watch division. (Yes, Intel was once in the watch business.) He said the lesson was that "when the other guy's business looks too easy, it means you don't know enough about it." While I thought he was a business God, Noyce also showed me how it was also possible to be a genuine person that makes mistakes and moves past them.
Jerry Sanders was the founder of AMD and provided chips for Atari. We were a good customer, but we were also always late on our payments because we were always outgrowing our capital base. When I would come to Jerry with my tale of woe about why my payments were late, he would listen and make a judgement about how far he would trust me. He would give me ideas about how we could improve our cash flow and ideas about creating a more efficient way of doing business. Over the years, his counsel saved my company millions of dollars and I will never forget a particularly bleak patch in Atari's finances when we almost went out of business, he saved us by granting us an additional credit line that helped save the company. It is good to have friends in high places.
Last but not least let me tell you about Don Valentine. Don was our lead investor when we finally were able to raise some venture capital. Don was the definition of hard love. He was the most difficult board member that I ever had and I learned the most from him. It actually became a game. At every board meeting I would make a presentation and he would ask a question that I could not answer but one that the minute I heard it I knew I should have known it. I would dive into the numbers before each board meeting making sure he could not catch me again. He always would.
What this process did was make me be a much better CEO and gave me a clearer picture of what was and was not important. Wisdom comes in many packages. Many young businesses do not have or have seldom board meetings. This is a huge mistake. If anything a young company needs more board meetings with smart and experienced board members. (If your board members are neither smart or experienced, change them.) Finding an engaged mentor who will keep you on your toes is an important growth step.
Veteran entrepreneur NOLAN BUSHNELL is the founder Atari, Chuck E. Cheese, Etak, ByVideo, Axlon, and uWink. Among his accomplishments, Bushnell invented Pong, hired Steve Jobs, and developed a series of robots. He lives in California. @NolanBushnell