"Shake the tree and something is bound to fall out" was the inspiration, such as it is, behind Nolan Bushnell's 1980 funding of Axlon Inc. The tree happened to be Particularly thick with the fruits of Bushnell's fertile mind, and sure enough, oaks from acorns are growing: Peripheral-maker Axlon had 1982 sales of $3 million to $5 million, up from $500,000 the year before.
The sprouting of Axlon was virtually predestined. A computer drifter in search of the action, John Vurich's main attraction, as far as Bushnell was concerned, was possessing the sensibilities for having invented microcomputer-controlled pinball. Summoning Vurich, who had left Atari in January 1979 because he "didn't see their computer going where I wanted," Bushnell proposed that the two start a company.
And so they did. Axlon was Bushnell's first seeding since Atari eight years before, setting the stage for Catalyst Technologies. Bushnell put in most of the money simply because "be had more than I did," recalls Vurich, now chief executive officer. (Since then, only one other investor -- Inc. -- has been admitted.)
Bushnell's idea for their first product was an order-yourself computter terminal for fast-food restaurants. Customers would view mouth-watering options and punch in their choice. Axlon built a prototype, but Vurich was discouraged by the size of the investment needed to hook into existing cash-register systems. "Don't despair, John," said Bushnell. "This one may not be a winner, but we'll get some products out of it."
However vague, Bushnell's words proved to be wise counsel. Serendipitously, Vurich had expanded the memory of an Atari computer for that project and decided to market the new board. Since then, more than 30,000 have been sold to computer users. Rampower, as the device was named, became the company's first bread-and-butter product. Rampower, along with Ramdisk, is a compact, solid-state peripheral acting as the equivalent of two disk drives. With it, says Vurich, "we can turn an Apple into the fastest computer you've ever seen."
Bushnell's next concept was also restaurant-oriented: a small, alphanumeric walkie-talkie-like instrument with which a waiter or waitress could relay orders directly into the kitchen by pushing buttons. Again, Vurich built some prototypes and pressed them into action. But it turned out that without a display, a server got no reassuring feedback. To construct a reliable display required putting in a microprocessor and a two-way radio, resulting in an unacceptably bulky instrument.
Give up? Never. Bushnell and Vurich decided they would try to construct a tiny, dumb terminal from what they had so far. Out came the Datalink, a handheld interactive data handler that can talk to base computers or plug into information services via telephone. Vurich was quick to grasp the massmarketing implications. At National Semiconductor "I sat next to a guy who delivered 6 million calculators at a cost of less than a dollar each," he remembers. "It wasn't the greatest calculator, but it sure shows you what volume can do." At press time, Axlon was negotiating an order from a bank for more than half a million Datalinks and has struck a deal with a brokerage firm whose customers will be able to buy or sell stocks directly by computer.
Axlon's product line is now devoted to what Yurich calls the "electronic wallet" -- miniaturized communications and data processing devices that people will carry around with them. As Axlon expands, Bushnell ensures that the corporate wallet doesn't get too thin. "Nolan is good at giving us direction," Vurich admits. "Making sure a small company doesn't make big mistakes is critical."