Recently I had the opportunity to interview Nolan Bushnell and Jason Crawford, co-founders of Modal Systems, a LA based virtual reality start-up company.  Nolan is a serial entrepreneur who has founded many companies, but you probably recognize Atari and Chuck E. Cheese as his most notable.  My full interview is available on iTunes here.

The most notable lessons for entrepreneurs from the interview:

1. Leaders are always learning.

I had an outline of issues to discuss with Nolan and Jason, but the interview quickly moved away from any planned discussion.  Soon we were discussing base reality and philosophy.  The discussion covers philosophy, management issues, and what are common traits of creative people.  As the discussion illustrates, both Nolan and Jason are constantly learning.

2. Entrepreneurs are creatives that have interests in many different areas.

Both Nolan and Jason have interest in many topics.  Jason comes to the VR world from a music background.  Nolan’s an engineer by training, but is responsible for founding the video gaming industry as we understand it today.

3. Chance plays a role in entrepreneurship.

The background of how Jason and Nolan connected an eventually formed Modal is interesting.  It also shows that there is an element of chance that comes into play for entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs have to be flexible, and opportunities arise unexpectedly.

However, while chance plays a role, entrepreneurs take advantages of opportunities.  The discussion with Nolan and Jason illustrates that they are always thinking about the opportunities presented to them.  They are always thinking about how to improve the status quo, and when chance opens up an opportunity, they act on it.

4. Being good in school does not equal success as an entrepreneur.

I’m a strong believer in a good education, but simply because an entrepreneur is in the top of his or her class does not predict success in business.  Nolan is a prime example of this, he almost brags about the fact that he was close to the bottom of his engineering class in college.

5. LA’s startup-eco system is strong.


Enjoy the interview.  The first part of the full interview is posted on my YouTube channel as well:

The hiring process cannot be underestimate, both from a managerial and legal perspective.  This Friday’s Five focuses on critical management and legal considerations for employers during the hiring process:

1. Ignore the applicant’s resume during the interview.

Nolan Bushnell, the inventor of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, and the first person to hire Steve Jobs, provides some great examples of how to conduct an interview to determine if the applicant is a good fit for the company in his book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs.  He recommends asking applicants about their top ten favorite books, listening to how they describe their life (“the passionless tend to be blamers”), and asking questions that have no right answers. This allows the interviewer to understand how the applicant analyzes a problem.  The book is a must read for leaders in companies that require creative thought leaders working in their establishment.

2. Leaders need to be involved in the hiring process.

This is simply something too important for a company to leave to other people.  Sam Altman, of Y Combinator, wrote:

The vast majority of founders don’t spend nearly enough time hiring. After you figure out your vision and get product-market fit, you should probably be spending between a third and a half of your time hiring. It sounds crazy, and there will always be a ton of other work, but it’s the highest-leverage thing you can do, and great companies always, always have great people. You can’t outsource this—you need to be spending time identifying people, getting potential candidates to want to work at your company, and meeting every person that comes to interview. Keith Rabois believes the CEO/founders should interview every candidate until the company is at least 500 employees.

Founders interviewing employee number 1 to 500 sets to tone for the company in many ways in addition to the value mentioned by Sam. First, meeting all new hires illustrates that the employees are valued. Second, it shows that the founders are approachable and should the employee have any complaints they could discuss the issues with the founders. Granted once the company passes the 50 employee mark, it becomes more difficult to have a personal relationship with everyone in the company, but at least the founders are meeting everyone working at the company. This proves to the employees that they are valued. Usually the company’s open door policy states that if the employee has any complaints, they are free to discuss it with their supervisor, and if appropriate their concerns can be escalated to the founders/CEO. Meeting with employee during the hiring process can give teeth to the open door policy, and promote the practice of speaking with the founders if any employees have concerns about work.

3. Try working with the applicant first.

I don’t care how many interviews someone has conducted, no one can determine if an applicant will be a good fit in a company over an interview at lunch. No matter how good you believe your interview questions are at finding out the applicant’s true values, work ethic, and knowledge base, anyone with an internet can study-up on how to handle almost any type of interview scenario and look amazing during the interview. How does a company get past this problem? Sam Altman again has some great advice and recommends hiring the applicant as an independent contractor and giving her a day or two of work on a noncritical project. I recommend that companies may take it one step further, and depending on the circumstances, it may even be appropriate to hire the applicant as an employee with the idea that they are to only work on one short project during the nights or weekends. There is nothing in the law that prevents a company from hiring employees for a day or two to see how they would work, that is the idea behind at-will employment.

4. Find the applicant’s true ambition.

 Gary Vaynerchuk has a great take on what interviewers should be striving to determine during the interview:

 When I interview you, the main thing I want to know is where you want your career to go. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I want to get into the psychology of what their ambition is. And I spend most of the interview trying to get that person comfortable enough to tell me the truth to that question. Because I don’t care if you want to be the CEO of VaynerMedia, or if you just want to move a couple levels up and have great work life balance. I don’t even care if you want to come work for me for two years, suck up all my IP, and then go somewhere to start your own agency. I really don’t care. Truly. Whatever your agenda is, I’m fine with it. I just want to know what it is, so I can help us get there. You and me.

5. Make a checklist of legal hiring compliance issues.

As always, it is good to periodically review hiring materials, questions and processes to insure compliance with local, city, and state laws, such as:

  • Are applications seeking appropriate information?
  • Are new hires provided with required policies and notices?
  • Are new hires provided and acknowledge recommended policies?
    • For example: meal period waivers for shifts less than six hours
  • Are hiring managers trained about the correct questions to ask during the interview?
  • Does the company provide new hires (and existing employees) with arbitration agreements?

Who was the first person to recognize Steve Jobs’ potential and offer him a job? It was Nolan Bushnell. By the way, Bushnell is also the founder of Atari, co-inventor of the video game Pong, founder of Chuck E. Cheese, and is a serial entrepreneur. Given Bushnell’s track record in business, and having the badge of honor of the first person to hire Steve Jobs is more than enough evidence that managers, CEO’s, and human resources personnel should listen to his thoughts on hiring.

Bushnell’s recently published book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs, sets forth what he refers to as “pongs”, or general flexible rules managers should abide by in order to find, hire, and retain the best and most creative employees. I starting reading the book after I was fortunate enough to meet Nolan at Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum opening in April [see picture – from left to right: Chris Espinosa (Apple’s 8th employee), Nolan Bushnell, Bob Frankston (co-creator of VisiCalc), Robert Zaller (co-founder of MITS and co-inventor of the Altair), me, and Eric Zaller]. Bushnell makes some excellent points in regards to finding and hiring the best and most creative employees and provides some examples on how to interview applicants to see their true personalities. The following are a few points Bushnell discusses in the book, and a very good reminder to anyone involved in the hiring process.

Creative employees are arrogant.
Only the arrogant have the strength to push for their ideas. They will continue to push their ideas far past the point any other individual would have relinquished to the pressure to give in or to conform to the “norm.” Arrogance does have its place, it is the vehicle creatives use when their solutions do not match anyone else’s views, which must be the case by definition of being creative. I’ve written before that arrogance can buy a company a lot of lawsuits, especially if a manager or the CEO is arrogant. An arrogant employee cannot create the same level of liability for a company, but they still must proactively be handled and discussed with other the other members of the team. On the other hand, managers and a CEO must be able to manage their arrogance in order to avoid looking like a bully, buying the company a lot of litigation.

Hire creative people and find a position for them. Don’t hire for a position.
Bushnell advocates the idea that a company can find great employees through everyday interactions with people. The truly creative and passionate people will standout, it does not matter what job they are doing, their skills will carry over to their work in any job.

Ignore the applicant’s resume during the interview.
Bushnell also provides some great examples of how to conduct an interview to determine if the applicant is a good fit for the company. He recommends asking applicants about their top ten favorite books, listening to how they describe their life (“The passionless tend to be blamers.”), and asking applicants questions that have no right answers. This allows the interviewer to see how the applicant analyzes a problem.

Finding the Next Steve Jobs is a great resource for anyone in the human resources profession, and for anyone who has the responsibility of finding great employees for their company.