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The Business of Play: Bill Nottingham and Brent Bushnell


Brent Bushnell is CEO of Two Bit Circus, which creates “entertainment that is imaginative and interactive, blurring the line between physical and digital playgrounds.” He’s also the son of Nolan Bushnell, the video game pioneer who founded Atari. Brent recently joined Bill Nottingham for a discussion about the “Business of Play” on Sirius XM's Innovation Navigation radio show. Here are some highlights.

On growing up with an inventor father:

Brent: “Dad’s still a big kid. And he trained as an engineer but has been an entrepreneur his whole life and really raised us with one foot in each of those camps. ‘Let’s take these things apart, let’s build new stuff,’ but then also like, ‘What are the economics of this restaurant?’ I really liked both of those, and went on myself to study engineering and have been an entrepreneur ever since.”

Bill: “My father taught us by showing. He would bring home prototypes. One of the [Nottingham Spirk’s] first clients was Little Tikes, and he would bring these prototypes that we though were real, and we’d be devastated when he would take them back to the shop. We were like constant test mules for everything! We were so freaked out because we wanted the toy back!”

Brent: “We had such a similar experience with that. We played very little Atari, because he was always bringing home new stuff! And prototypes coming in and going right back out the door because it’s the only one that exists in the world. We used to joke, ‘That’s 10 years on the couch right there.’”

Bill: “When they take those away, it makes you feel like, ‘Hey wait a second, I’m going to build my own toy!’ And that’s kind of what we’re doing now.”

On innovation in experience entertainment:

Brent: “When we started playing around with this style of entertainment escape rooms didn’t exist, and so it was a little goofy because we’d be like, ‘Hey, do you want to come do this thing, it’s like a live-action adventure,’ and people would scratch there head and they’d be like, ‘You mean like an iPad app?’ And we’re like, ‘No! It’s a real thing, you go to a place!’ And it was so challenging to convey the concept. And then as escape rooms started to take off we could say, ‘It’s like an escape room,’ and people are like, ‘Oh, got it.’ But it’s fun to see those taking off now. … We look at escape rooms as a subset of a larger category of entertainment that we call story rooms. The idea is, what if the story is not about escaping the room? What if you want to do something with Barbie, or NASCAR, or a sci-fi adventure?

Bill: “What I find fascinating is you’re actually putting the power back in the hands of the player. It doesn’t have to be a joystick and all these functionalities you need to know to be really good at it, it’s just about using your wits.”

Brent: “If you think about the evolution of entertainment, it’s been about increasing your immersion. There are a lot of folks super excited about VR, and we definitely think VR is cool, we’ve done a lot of work in that space, but the highest-resolution thing is real life, right? That’s as good as it gets, and so how can we make games and entertainment experiences that allow you to dive into a narrative.”

On the business model of using experience to promote brands:

Brent: “For CW, to help them launch The Flash, we did a version of this built into a truck that they toured around in Las Vegas and L.A., where you got to see what it’s like to be a superhero. For that particular case, we collaborated with them to build that, they paid us a flat fee, and we were really getting used to these tools so it was sort of a paid R&D project for us. Going forward, as we end up with more of these out there, there’ll be a collaboration with both paying to skin it with that IP, but then we’ll do a revenue share of the ticket sales.

Bill: “I think you keyed into something really interesting. Businesses are constantly trying to find ways to get outside themselves and disrupt themselves, and maybe being part of these experiences would get them to step back from the day-to-day grind of the job and really learn how to work as a team.”

Brent: “Absolutely, you nailed it. In fact today we have 50 people from Comcast coming through our experience as a team-building exercise. It’s a natural fit for groups of people, either groups of friends or groups of people at a company, to come together and explore new ways of collaborating and communicating in the backdrop of something that’s a lot of fun.”

On using experiences in education:

Brent: “My favorite ways to learn were always in context — not rote memorization but working on a project, doing something involving all of your faculties. It’s one thing to learn about chemistry or physics in isolation, it’s another to be called in to fix the reactor. And over the course of fixing the reactor, even if you don’t know anything about those things, you’re given just-in-time information to get you through the process.”

On thinking differently:

Bill: “One of the things that is fascinating to me is that in Brent’s world, there are literally no rules. We go into brainstorming sessions and we say ‘There are no bad ideas.’ But it’s amazing how many companies create those rules, those boxes, and they can’t get out of their own way. But when you start to think like, ‘What if I had no rules?’, anything can truly be possible. It’s all about your own mindset.”

Brent: “There’s a fascinating talk by John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, it’s called On Creativity, and I encourage all of you to check this out, it’s really wonderful and whimsical. He talks about ‘intermediate impossibles,’ and they’re a jumping point, a bridge between the normal and the established to something crazy and ridiculous as a concept, as a stepping stone to some real innovation.

On keeping up with rapidly changing technology:

Brent: “Man, that is an active process. I have one thing I just absolutely love to do, which is conference crash. The idea is, to go to random conferences, especially conferences that are outside your domain. Next time you’re in Vegas ask the cabbie for their list of conferences, they all have one. You’ll be there for CES, and there’s going to be the actuary convention, and the packaging convention. It might have no relevance to your life, but it might be that some new innovation there is something that can be applied to your business or the inspiration for a problem you’re trying to solve.”

(Bill and Brent met at SXSW.)

On keeping teams moving forward:

Bill: “Patience. It’s so easy for us to want to charge forward and do it, but you always have to keep in mind that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve got to look at the long term. As a young entrepreneur, it’s hard, we’re in this immediate culture, but you’ve got to just keep going, keep being relentless, keep being resilient. It’s a never-ending battle.”

Advice for others who want to innovate:

Brent: “The thing that has influenced our stuff more than anything else is putting stuff in front of people as fast as possible. So often the stuff that [partner] Eric and I are so excited about ends up being the worst thing. And the thing that is in debug mode, at the very beginning of the project and just happens to be sitting there in the corner is the thing that people walk up to and are like, ‘This is awesome!’ There’s just no substitute for engaging as early and as often as possible. And we always joke that the best testers are kids and drunks. They both have no tolerance for instructions, and they both have a tendency to be pretty violent, so if you want to stress-test something, they can do a pretty good job.”

Bill: “When you’re in business, it’s OK to play. Play is all relative. Play can mean you’re having fun, you’re working hard, you’re open to ideas, and you’re not thinking about things that are constricting you.”

Related: Bill and John Nottingham’s first appearance on Innovation Navigation.

Contact Nottingham Spirk to discuss how your organization can take innovation to the next level.

About us: Nottingham Spirk is a business innovation and product design firm with an unrivaled record of delivering disruptive consumer goods, medical devices, and packaging design solutions to market. We collaborate with Fortune 1,000 companies, funded start-ups and non-profit organizations to discover, design and execute product programs and strategic business platforms that will wow customers, grow markets and generate new revenue streams. Learn more about what makes us different here.


Topics: Brent Bushnell, Atari, how to be more innovative, Innovation Navigation, innovation strategies, News, podcast, Bill Nottingham, business innovation, Interview

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