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Bull Session

Brent Bushnell: Inspiring Young Inventors of the Future

November 03, 2015
CEO Brent Bushnell at Two Bit Circus warehouse
CEO Brent Bushnell at Two Bit Circus warehouse

Brent Bushnell is the CEO of Two Bit Circus, the Los Angeles-based experiential entertainment company behind the STEAM Carnival; a modern take on the traveling circus that uses robots, fire, and lasers to inspire young inventors in science, technology, engineering, art, and math. The company just secured $6.5 million in funding. He was a founding member of Syyn Labs, the arts and engineering collective that created the machinery for the viral OK Go music video, "This Too Shall Pass – Rube Goldberg Machine," which has garnered more than 50 million views on YouTube.

How did you come up with the idea for your business?

I always sort of knew that I wanted to be an engineer and an entrepreneur, but it wasn’t until I met my co-founder, Eric Gradman, and we started having fun without a business motive building entertainment and games that I realized, “Oh my God, what am I doing? This is the domain I should have been in all along. I know a lot about it. I love it. I’m super passionate about it: it’s just a no-brainer;” but it really took doing it as a hobby first.

Eric and I are obsessed with circus and carnivals. You look through all of history: things that started out as toys eventually become standard, and then [became] relied upon in mission critical capacities.

Our original impetus was: “Hey, let’s take modern tech and start applying it to entertainment in fun ways.” If I can hijack a kid’s love for video games or a kid’s love for music, and then insert a learning [protocol] around science and sound waves or programming and electronics, then suddenly everybody wins. The kid is able to work on something that they’re excited about, and as a society, we’re getting a kid that is now able to be capable of solving hard problems, and that’s a really powerful combination.

What is the most exciting prospect for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics)?

There has never been a better time in all the history of humanity to be involved in science and engineering. And I don’t say that lightly. The tools are better than they’ve ever been. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to learn how to program, it was punishing and terrible and not intuitive, and only PhDs could do it. Nowadays, you can program in pictures on your iPad and it could be your 5-year-old; and that’s just in programming. The same is true in electronics, and fabrication, and CAD design, all the way down the line. For every domain, those tools have gotten easier and more accessible.

So the promise of STEAM is being able to rebrand STEM, and rebrand engineering and science in a powerful way. People still associate engineering and science with the very nerdy stuff; and culturally people still associate this domain with being anti-social and uninteresting. STEAM sort of finally gives it the license to be exciting. You bring in the arts and that brings in the creativity and the fun and the zaniness and all the things that make science and engineering sexy and awesome. So that for me is the huge opportunity.

Brent Bushnell CEO of Two Bit Circus in simulator chair
Bushnell CEO of Two Bit Circus in simulator chair
"We are rapid prototypers. We can come up with an idea in the morning and have a working prototype by the afternoon."

How do the most interesting problems emerge in your workspace?

We are rapid prototypers, and so one of the things that I love the most about Two Bit Circus is the fact that we have the creatives, the engineers and the fabricators all together. We can come up with an idea in the morning and have a working prototype by the afternoon.

You often don’t know what will be good and what will be bad; but once you have a working prototype, all is revealed. Now all of a sudden you have real use cases. You can see, “That’s awesome. Or, that’s terrible.” That’s a really powerful thing, and so that’s when the real problems start to surface. You realize “Oh wow, that’s totally not intuitive. Grandma’s never going to be able to figure that out. How can we solve that?” With some real data, you’re able to iterate and test new solutions.

What about the actual ideas?

We have a real creative bunch here. So we get an educator, and a physicist, and an unicyclist and a whistler together, and they come up with all sorts of stuff that you wouldn’t anticipate.

How do you lead a team that by nature is about unconventional experimentation?

We’re really particular in our hiring process. We look for self-starters, big time. We look for people who can take a project and run with it all the way to the end. They’re not necessarily needing to be tasked all the time and walked step by step through the process. They’re ready to take it to completion.

We also really look for people with a diversity of skill sets. One of the questions we ask is “What do you do on the weekends?” Because chances are, if you’re passionate about anything, it will show up in your hobbies. You know if we’re hiring you for something, and you do it also on the weekends, you probably like it. For example, Eric is the world’s first ranking whistler. Now, does whistling monetize? Well maybe not, but the fact that he can be passionate about that, he can bring the capacity for that passion to other projects, and that’s a powerful thing. So we’re always looking for folks that have zany skills and passion for something, because chances are they can be passionate about other things too.

"So we get an educator, and a physicist, and an unicyclist and a whistler together, and they come up with all sorts of stuff that you wouldn’t anticipate."
Brent Bushnell CEO of Two Bit Circus with signature clown nose
Bushnell CEO of Two Bit Circus with signature clown nose

What are the core values here at Two Bit Circus?

We are a very passionate group of people and we’re very excited about inspiring the next generation of inventors. For us, there’s no shortage of hard problems to solve in the world. The oceans are being destroyed, air quality, water quality: pick your domain and there’s a hard problem that needs to be solved there. There’s a definite shortage of creative capable people to solve them.

We really want to help usher in that next group and get them excited; make sure they’re capable and have that set of tools to go out and solve those problems. So from a values standpoint: we really appreciate whimsy and creativity and forthrightness. We’re a passionate band of nerds, so imagine all of the things that would go along with that.

How has the monetizing strategy for Two Bit Circus evolved?

When we started, we had our corpus of games that we’d been taking to parties and events for Microsoft and Intel and what not. As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to partner more deeply with folks like Dave and Busters restaurants or a toy company. We went from doing other people’s events to running our own event, our travelling STEAM Carnival, and that’s a whole ecosystem. Not just the event itself, but the content that is generated from it, the hands-on projects that people can do at home, and there starts to be more monetization vectors as you scale up the approach.

What are some of the ways that you have leveraged partnerships for your growth?

Partners have been a huge aspect of our business, and I think in an increasingly interconnected world, it’s true for every business. For us, we’ve done a lot of consulting work to help build our company and cash flow, so that we can invest in the things that we care about.

We’ll look for a brand that maybe wants to collaborate with us as talent, so that we’re going to help them promote something and they’re going to help promote us. Or, if we’re working with a brand exploring some new technology, they’re offsetting the costs of us getting to experiment with a new technology. So they get early access to a new technology and we get the opportunity to explore. We’re smaller and we can help them innovate and be their outsourced think-tank in many ways. They bring scale and audience and capital, and we can bring a cool and nimble band of super nerds.

Brent Bushnell CEO of Two Bit Circus in front of their warehouse
CEO Brent Bushnell at entrance to Two Bit Circus warehouse
"We’re a passionate group of nerds, so imagine all the things that would go along with that."

What’s next for Two Bit Circus?

We have such an exciting couple of years ahead. We’ve got a huge carnival in San Francisco this year. We’re just ecstatic to have Cartoon Network and Cisco as our title sponsors, so that’s very exciting. We’re going to go across the country next year.

Oftentimes, I describe producing large-scale events as a coordinated missile strike, because you basically have this one narrow time window when all these different things all need to hit at the same time. So there’s some amount of science there, some amount of art, some amount of just plain luck.

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