Post Founder: Stewart Bonn and Electronic Arts

Continuing the “Post Founder” theme (early employees of companies which later became huge successes), here are some great insights from Stewart Bonn, an early Electronic Arts’er.

Stewart is kinda of like the Godfather of Interactive Entertainment in the Valley. Notable for his Hawaiian shirts, he’s always connected somehow to interesting ideas, most recently at Bix before their sale to Yahoo. I met Stewart in 2000 via a mutual friend at Mayfield while Stewart was at There.com.

Stewart Bonn, Electronic Arts

> how many people were at Electronic Arts when you started and how did you get connected with the early team?
I was the 19th employee at EA. I was introduced to Trip Hawkins, the founder and CEO, by Brook Byers, a partner in Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers. I first met Trip in September of ’82. My background at this point was a degree in computer science and 7 years as a salesman at IBM. Trip’s background and many of the others had worked with him in marketing at Apple so I was very different from them. After he initially didn’t see a fit, I kept coming back to him selling him on the idea of hiring me. Over the course of 6 months he said “no” plenty of times. It was only when I offered to work for free for one month that he said yes. Of course he didn’t let me work for free but I am sure he decided that this was the only way to get rid of me.

> what was the first game you worked on and how did the concept come about?
The first product I produced was Music Construction Set for the Apple II. Since I was new in my role as producer, I had to go out and find some products since all of EA’s products were created by independent Software Artists (much like music and books) not employees. I attended an Applefest in Anaheim where I saw this cool music product being demonstrated by the Mockingboard company, the first Apple II sound card. When I asked the people there who did the product, they were very guarded and said it was created by a young man in the bay area but they did not want to reveal his name. Bummer because I really loved (and wanted) the product. I had to find that kid but it was going to take some serious sleuthing to find him.

Now we fast forward a couple weeks. The receptionist came into our weekly producer meeting and asked if anyone was available to talk a 15 year-old in the lobby. Everyone looked down and I was the only one eager to meet him. His name was Will Harvey and he was a sophomore in high school.

What he had to show was an interesting, well-executed though abstract (therefore not easily marketed) action game called Lancaster. We talked quite a bit but I politely said we couldn’t publish his game. I asked if there is anything else he is working on? He said there was one project where he was in final discussions with another company but he would like to show me anyway.

It was the music product I had seen in Anaheim! He set it up in a corner conference room and he started it playing “Something Dancer”, a popular theme song from a movie whose name I can’t remember. What you saw on the screen was the sheet music scrolling by but what you heard was 4-part composition that was amazing since the only thing an Apple could do up to this point was beep. I turned up the volume and heads started popping up from their cubes like gophers and looking in our direction. Eventually just about everyone (50 at that point) crowded into the room smiling and laughing. I knew we had a hit!

One of our launch titles was Pinball Construction Set by Bill Budge. It was a WYSIWYG (drag/drop) program for building a pinball machine using the mouse. This product was in the same vein in that you would drag notes onto a music staff and then click on the Piano icon and it would play. We called it Music Construction Set. It was simple, hot and deep which was the phrase Trip coined to describe the kinds of products EA would publish.

Time Magazine ended up doing a one-page story on Will and the product. It ended up selling over 500,000 units at full retail which was insane for a game let alone a music product. Will took all those royalties and went on to get his Ph.D in Computer Sciences. After school he founded There.com and then IMVU.

> as a producer, did think about what you wanted to make or what you thought would sell?
Over the years I worked with or hired some of the most successful producers in the industry. What they all shared was a strong editorial point of view about what was good and bad. This point of view came from personal experience and was always coupled with a skill about communicating what made something good. Hiring people with great product sense and the ability to communicate it was one of the things we did right at EA. We were highly intuitive about our product decisions. There was not a lot of analysis that occurred. There was a separate marketing organization that helped us with the naming, packaging etc. We learned very early on that they, too, had to be avid gameplayers.

It is a simple concept. Hire people with good taste that make stuff they want to play. As long as their taste aligns with popular tastes, we would be successful.

> what was your most meaningful contribution(s) to EA’s success?
When I was GM of EA Studios, my job was to deliver an agreed upon number of games on a particular schedule and at high quality. In order to make sure we delivered those products, we had to have more titles in development than we would commit which would give the Producers the freedom to slip some products if they needed more time as long as they could deliver other titles sooner. I was able to change the expectations of the company such that only 70% of the titles in development were committed.

I also encouraged the producers to “kill early and kill often”. Entertainment software is a “hope business” as in “I hope all this time and money produces a hit product.” Sadly that is not always the case. In fact, the titles most in trouble take the most of everyone’s time in an attempt to improve them. Killing a bad project frees up more than its share in time and energy. To encourage people to kill stinkers, I gave each producer a budget for write-offs so they could kill a title and not have the company feel any unplanned financial impact.

> did you have any traditions or rituals that helped define the company’s culture?
We had company meetings every Friday at 5. Each exec would give a brief summary of the week’s progress with emphasis on particular individual’s efforts. Those achievements were recognized with a “Star Achiever” award which was a 3″ button that you could stick onto your cube walls and show off like those stickers on football players helmets.

We developed what we called the “Action Values” which were the core values of the company. They were Achievement, Customer Service, Teamwork, Innovation, Ownership and “Now” (as in “Do it now”). Quarterly we gave out awards to individuals who exemplified those values.

We also gave out awards at the Christmas party. There were about a dozen or so categories. First year I received “Most Tenacious” and the “Most Valuable Player” the following year. Along with being voted “Teacher Irritator” in high school, these are my most coveted honors.

> do you see many connections in today’s EA to the company you helped start?
When I left, EA was the largest independent publisher of pc and video games. They still are.

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