Brent Bushnell’s CarnivalThe 37-year-old CEO of Two Bit Circus taps into his inner child to create a new form of entertainment.
Growing up, Brent Bushnell was the kid on the block with the best toys. As one of the sons of Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, Brent learned early on the joy of invention and the thrill of entrepreneurship. “Making my own games,” Brent says, “that was my dream.” But sometimes childhood dreams get pushed aside. After stints working in web hosting and DNA synthesis, Brent rediscovered the fun of making games when he met fellow engineer Eric Gradman. Together, the two founded Two Bit Circus, a Los Angeles company that infuses science and technology into the spectacle of a carnival.
THE RED BULLETIN: Your dad founded Atari. What was that like growing up?
BRENT BUSHNELL: My dad is an engineer and an entrepreneur, and we were raised doing both of those things. We didn’t just have a lemonade stand—we had an entire convenience store!
What was the number one thing that you took from your childhood?
In those early entrepreneurship days, my dad would always say, “I don’t care about how big this could possibly be. How do you make one dollar this weekend?” That idea of engage early and often, test, iterate and trial quickly was something that stuck with me through my whole life. It’s something that we apply intensely here at Two Bit. We will come up with something in the morning and have a working version ready by the afternoon. That’s a really powerful approach because you don’t always know what’s joke that the things we’re often most excited about end up being terrible. Sometimes the random stuff we just throw up against the wall ends up being the best.
So how did it come about?
We didn’t wake up one morning and declare, “We need to do a circus!” We didn’t have everything scripted out. We just knew the things that were working and we were able to iterate and develop from there. There’s something to be said for keeping your ear close to the ground, iterating quickly and trialing. We always joke that the best test subjects are kids and drunks because they both have no tolerance for instructions, they want immediate gratification and they’re totally violent. They will put your stuff through the ringer.
And you’re teaching them that science can be fun.
One of the big failures of our current education system is how siloed it is. It’s not inspiring to have to take Calculus I, and the only reason is so you can go to Calculus II. That’s not relevant. Why do I need to know this? Because I’m trying to solve this particular problem. That’s the way we approach problems in our real lives, so why should we expect kids to do it differently in school?
One way I think you can get really engaged is to have meaning to what you’re doing. One of the reasons why we love inspiring inventors is because inventors solve problems. They’re doing a real thing. Even if you’re just building a game, then you’re solving boredom or social problems by getting people to play together.
So science has a branding problem.
When people think of engineers, they think of pencil ties, lab coats and boring stuff. But we get to play with lasers and robots all day! We felt we had a special opportunity to share the fun we were having as a way to get other kids excited. After doing hundreds of other people’s events, we decided to do our own event and use it as a platform to rebrand what it means to be a nerd. Let’s get kids excited about creativity and invention but use games, fun and play as the hook.
Your STEAM carnival brings high tech to the circus. The kids are excited, but what about the adults?
It’s our goal at STEAM to pull back the curtain and show people that they can invent, too. Adults can be just as intimidated by electronics. And socially, it’s a nice way to break down barriers and get people off their screens.