Friends Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman are the two innovative minds at the helm of Two Bit Circus, an experiential entertainment company based in downtown Los Angeles. "We're basically a big band of nerds, roboticists and electrical engineers," says Bushnell. "We've been building big toys with lasers, fire, and robots for years."
The co-founders, who both have backgrounds in engineering, didn't plan on going into business together. Prior to starting Two Bit Circus, Bushnell was involved in a start-up, building high-tech restaurants. Gradman was working for the military, designing robots and self-driving cars.
The night they met, the two of them discovered a shared passion for making interactive art. "We were looking for something fun to do, combining novel technology with out-of-home entertainment," says Bushnell, and their flair for fun had a unique twist.
The two engineers also have backgrounds in big tops. "Eric and I are both obsessed with circus and carnival," says Bushnell. "From a young age, we were both trained clowns."
"I was an acrobat, aerialist, and fire performer, touring with a local L.A. circus for many years," says Gradman.
The pair started making their interactive art installations in their downtime, and sharing with like-minded friends at local gatherings and events. "There was this sort of passionate band of nerds building weird stuff," says Bushnell.
Buzz started to build around their creations, and people started hiring Bushnell and Gradman to bring their games to small corporate events and holiday parties. Then they got a call that changed everything.
"Microsoft says 'Hey we've got our E3 party coming up, would you guys come and bring all that stuff? We would love you to do the entertainment,'" says Bushnell.
This made the duo think their downtime fun could be more than simply passion play.
They officially launched Two Bit Circus in 2012, and big name brands were quick to take notice. Pepsi, Intel, and Honda were calling to work with them. "Our brand partners were really excited about the kind of experiences we were proposing," says Gradman. "Turns out there's just not a lot of people who were thinking about how to take this technology and make it fun out of home."
Despite their company's early success, its project-to-project nature posed some significant problems the first few years. They hired close knit friends as the company grew rapidly, but found themselves on a fire and re-hire rollercoaster. "We've worked with people through big projects, then parted ways, then come back to work together again," says Bushnell. "It's a long winding road."
Transparency became key to getting the revolving group of talented employees to return. "I think when people feel like you are entrusting them with information, then you have a long-term friend," says Bushnell.
Although they were thrilled to have a long list of big name brands as clients, the pair had to adjust to managing payment cycles that severely impacted cash flow at times.
"We literally didn't know how we were going to pay everybody a week out," says Bushnell. "We should have blown up in a million pieces."
Streamlining a creative process among a group of roboticists, inventors, and engineers was another challenge that they faced.
"We must be prolific with ideas, because we throw most of them away," says Gradman. "We start with hundreds of ideas, prototype fifty, and watch some of them crash and burn. You can't fall in love with an idea, because if it doesn't resonate with our audience we have to discard."
Soon, the business was gaining even more traction. Bushnell and Gradman were fired up about getting their Two Bit Circus carnivals off the ground, but when they realized what they actually had to do to deliver a world-class experience, they were overcome with concern.
"All of a sudden we realized we have a lot of people coming," says Gradman. "We've got to build a lot of new games and they have to be robust. It was quite an undertaking."
Although the events were hugely successful, Bushnell and Gradman had to figure out whether this new business model was actually viable. "We looked at each other and were like 'Oh my God. That was a lot of work,'" says Bushnell. "We operated it for three days. We filled 12,000 square feet. We just finished setting up and now we're leaving."
So the pair spent the next 18 months brainstorming some more sustainable concepts, eventually coming up with their most ambitious idea to date — STEAM Carnival.
"You know the term STEM, plus Art," says Bushnell.
The concept blends reimagined carnival and arcade games, with all kinds of virtual reality experiences, in a 50,000 square foot space. Bushnell and Gradman hope to eventually launch their "micro-amusement park" concept across the country.
"It's a big project and we have an incredible team," says Bushnell of the margarita robots, fire dunk tanks, and all around good time that he and his friend created.
"I never thought for a moment that we would be in a place like this, doing what we do for a living," says Gradman. "Coming to work and building awesome crazy entertainment."