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[whitespace] Nolan Bushnell in Garage
Photograph by Chris Gardner

Back to the Garage

As founder of Atari, inventor of Pong and mastermind of Chuck E. Cheese, Nolan Bushnell became a symbol of Silicon Valley's new money. But fast fortunes are sometimes lost, and now King Pong has to press the new game button and start again.

NOLAN BUSHNELL is known as the father of the video game industry, but of equal historical weight may be his role as the Silicon Valley's first rock star. After developing Pong and co-founding Atari in the 1970s, he became the first poster boy from the land of pocket protectors and slide rules, a myth-feeding embodiment of a flashy entrepreneurial lifestyle that inspired a generation to forgo ties, quit day jobs and change the world. The visible symbols of his success included a $3.5 million Learjet, a 37-room, 16-acre old-money mansion in Woodside, a fully staffed 1914 estate near the Eiffel Tower, smaller places in D.C. and Aspen, a 41-foot yacht, "Pong," which he outgrew and replaced with a 67-foot ultralight racing sloop with a carbon fiber mast that took first place in a 1983 Los Angeles-Honolulu race. Playboy interviewed him and Fortune magazine photographed him with a "lady friend" in a hot tub. In 1977, Time profiled him in a cover story about "The Hot New Rich," along with guitarist Peter Frampton and cookie maker Famous Amos.

Bushnell and wife Nancy hosted fundraisers for judicial candidates and the San Francisco Ballet, and in 1982, with his in-laws, he opened an opulent restaurant, the Lion and Compass in Sunnyvale. It quickly became the spot for dealmaking in the semiconductor and personal computer industries. Bushnell the celebrity could be spotted beneath the stock ticker by the bar, playing starstruck techies in liar's poker with the serial numbers of folded dollar bills.

Bushnell the businessman became a prophet of entrepreneurship, evangelizing the new business culture and birthing companies at his incubator, Catalyst Technologies of Sunnyvale. His second company, Pizza Time Theater, was a hot stock that year, and another company that manufactured personal robots was being shined up for an initial public offering. And while valley decamillionaires with Learjets and serial IPOs barely merit gossip-column mentions these days, Bushnell back then was writing the book on the subject.

He was more than just another Silicon Valley entrepreneuer--he was a capitalist deity incarnate. In business classes jokes were told, like the one in which Jesus and Moses were golfing at Pebble Beach, and Moses hits a ball into a water trap. Predictably, Moses proceeds to part the waters and walk on dry land to retrieve the golf ball. Faced with a similar predicament, Jesus strolls across the lake's surface, bends down and plucks the ball out of the water. On a nearby green, one onlooker asks his golfing partner, "Who's that guy walking on water, Jesus Christ?" The other replies, "No, that's Nolan Bushnell."

"When you're hot, you're hot,'" Bushnell reflects on his aquapedestrian days, repeating the refrain of a pop song from an earlier era. "And when you're not you're not.'"

Bushnell now rents a home in the Mandeville Canyon section of West Los Angeles and is starting over. He sold his residences and companies to pay off some loans he used to start businesses in the early 1980s and is back to square one, in the garage, launching a new venture called Uwink.com.

"The last think I want to do is elicit pity," he said during an interview last month that exhibited his characteristic charm, wit and optimism. He leafed through a banker's box filled with magazines that celebrated his achievements, and pulled out an Atari business plan. Quaint compared with today's slick presentations, it launched a company that grew to $2 billion in sales, spread to 80 buildings and and was once hailed as the fastest-growing corporation ever.

Bushnell made the mistake of taking a margin loan against his stock holdings when the market price was high, and when the price fell, Merrill Lynch called the note. It aggressively pursued the Bushnell family for more than a decade, attaching assets at every turn. He could have declared bankruptcy, but didn't, choosing to pay back all the principal and millions in interest.

It's a bull market again, just like back in 1982, and Bushnell warns today's CEOs not to make the same mistakes. "There's a lot of guys on the wire without a net," he observes. "A lot of guys who are CEOs who have never seen a bear market."

--Dan Pulcrano, Editor




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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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