To say Nolan Bushnell has had a little impact on the world of entrepreneurship is like saying Amazon is just so-so at ecommerce. After all, this is the man who founded Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, among many other successful tech ventures. Newsweek named him one of "50 Men Who Changed America," and he's been inducted into both the Consumer Electronics Association and Video Game Halls of Fame.
By all accounts, one of Bushnell's top attributes is his eye for talent, having nurtured Steve Jobs when the future Apple co-founder was just 21. Throughout his career, Bushnell has consistently discovered and managed top talent. According to Bushnell, here's how to find the next Steve Jobs:
#1 Prioritize traits you're looking for
"The #1 trait is passion," said Bushnell during a recent sit-down at the Case Western Reserve University Innovation Summit. "You want people who are so full of life, who are so engaged with making the world a better place, that almost everything else is trainable."
Bushnell believes that once they have the proper direction, these prospects can fill in any deficits that they have, thanks to the wealth of knowledge that is available through the Internet. "With direction and passion, everything's possible."
"I knew that Steve was going to be important in life. I thought that it was going to take a little longer," Bushnell admits. "He had the raw materials, but he was a very unfinished product. But his clarity of mind, his passion for life...he was one of the few people that works for me that I would find under his desk after doing an all-nighter that he wasn't assigned for."
#2 Avoid "politicians"
"Steve and I were technologists, and we didn't understand politics," shares Bushnell. As companies get bigger, politics become very important, but Bushnell was very resistant to politics, which are important to career success but not the first thing you look for in transformational entrepreneurs. "If somebody was talented and yet very political, I would try to replace them."
#3 Find entrepreneurs who understand finance
When it comes to new ideas and innovations, the biggest failing Bushnell has identified in entrepreneurs is an inability to understand the financial underpinnings of their ideas. Today, when he interview entrepreneurs who want him to become involved in their businesses, Bushnell quizzes them. One of his go-to questions is "what's your customer acquisition cost?" Occasionally, an entrepreneur will skirt the question, saying that "I leave that to my finance guys," or "that's marketing's responsibility."
"But it's not," maintains Bushnell. "The person who runs the company has to be the chief architect and has to have a financial plan for their idea, or it is a nonstarter." If an entrepreneur says "well, I don't do spreadsheets," that's the wrong answer for Bushnell. In his eyes, an entrepreneur that can't fill in all the numbers and make an economic model, doesn't have what it takes to be a good leader.
#3 Find those looking to be consistently challenged
Can you put an all-star talent in a role that's outside their comfort zone and still have them succeed? Bushnell thinks so. "When you have capable people, they are problem solvers. I'm convinced that any of my good technologists, if I had tasked them to decipher the genome, they could've done it with no background in biology. That diversity of thought and problem solving is key for your A+ players."
Very often one of the benefits of pushing somebody outside of their traditional comfort zone is that they bring new insights and can often solve problems that have been around the industry for sometime. Case in point: Jobs himself, who transformed Pixar as something of an outsider, and later revolutionized the music and smartphone industries, despite not being a "lifer" in either.
#4 Identify tribes of creatives
Bushnell actively seeks out what he calls "tribes" of creative people, as they are often the transformative figures he likes to nurture. These people aren't necessarily where you'd expect to find them, but Bushnell is a big believer in looking for talent everywhere. Burning Man, for one, is an excellent example of somewhere where people step out of their normal lives, enduring heat, dust, and craziness, all in the name of intense creativity.
#5 Don't forget meetups
To a young entrepreneur looking to make a name for themselves, meetups today are very important, maintains Bushnell. Companies such as Amazon, Google, and Apple have whole teams of people that consistently stalk meetups; if you're looking to find the next Steve Jobs, you've got to have an active presence in your community's meetup ecosystem.
Bushnell has seen the importance of meetups firsthand: his youngest son Wyatt was just at a meetup and recruited by Google based off the quality of a presentation he had just made. An entrepreneur like his father, the younger Bushnell turned down a more than fair salary to stay in the startup game. If you're not attending startups, Bushnell maintains, you're likely going to miss out on quality talent.
Looking for more on the subject of finding and nurturing top talent? Last year, Bushnell released Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Keep, and Nurture Talent to teach others what he's learned on the topic over the course of his renown career. You can pick up a copy here.