It’s a foggy morning in half moon bay
, about 2 miles from the legendary Mavericks surf break just south of San Francisco. The parking lot is packed with 4×4 pickups and other mud-splattered vehicles outfitted with surfboard and bike racks. I’m led inside the GoPro headquarters by Rick Loughery, the company’s steel-jawed director of communications, who’s wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “manufacturing stoke.”
We thread past a cube warren populated by twentysomethings dressed in the wrinkled cotton of passengers who just landed on the red-eye from Reykjavík (which some of the staffers very likely did). Duffel bags stuffed with outdoor gear crowd vacant desks while videographers stare into 27-inch monitors, editing footage captured at the most recent Winter X Games.
We weave our way to an office, where Nick Woodman, the 36-year-old founder and CEO of the upstart camera company, is double-fisting cans of Red Bull—his rocket fuel of choice—and watching a high-definition cavalcade of GoPro-sponsored athletes leaping out of airplanes, tumbling off mountains, plummeting over waterfalls, and diving into hot tubs on every continent. The frenetic action has been stitched into a promotional video for the company’s latest creation, the $300 HD Hero2, the culmination of a decade’s worth of tiny, armored cameras designed to be mounted on bike handlebars, snowboard helmets, and car hoods.
Woodman’s distillation of the essence of the GoPro mission is equal parts corporate messaging and surferspeak: “Our goal was to create a celebration of inspired humans doing rad stuff around the world.” In fact, Woodman is, to an extent, underselling the GoPro effect. The 8-year-old company not only has celebrated the antics of those inspired humans, it has also created a virtuous circle of video reinforcement that defines and motivates the culture of extreme sports. Woodman—a wave rider, race-car driver, mountain biker, and snowboarder—lives the lifestyle his indestructible cameras capture. He is proud that those cameras and accessories such as the new Wi-Fi BacPac, which adds remote capture and sharing features, form their own feedback loop that continuously adds functionality without stranding older equipment. The backward compatibility with cameras dating to the original HD Hero from 2009 keeps customers happy—and the Lego-like upgrades encourage people to buy deeper into the GoPro system. That resulting combination of customer enthusiasm and loyalty sold more than 800,000 cameras last year to users who then upload videos to YouTube once every 2 ½ minutes.
Woodman didn’t set out to redefine the market for digital imaging. He just wanted to shoot decent surfing photos. In early 2002, after his games promotion company, Fun Bug, flamed out in the wake of the dot-com bust, he took off with his girlfriend (now wife), Jill, to surf-bum in Southeast Asia. The waves were world-class, and the art major from the University of California, San Diego, wanted to take high-quality action shots of his buddies on their boards. “Surfing is such an incredible experience with a huge ego element,” he says. “‘Did you see that wave? I got so barrelled! No? You didn’t!'”
But unless you dragged a cameraman with a wide-angle lens into the tube with you, the best you could do was lash a disposable camera in waterproof housing to your arm with a rubber band. Woodman started thinking, what if I make a wrist strap with a mechanism that pivots the camera out of the way while I’m surfing, pop it up for the money shot, and then fold it down again? Between paddling out for sets in Sumatra and Java, he spent his time creating prototypes from old surf leashes.
When he and Jill returned to California in August 2002, they spent three months traveling the coast, living out of Woodman’s 1974 VW bus and selling bead-and-shell belts they had picked up for $1.90 apiece in Indonesia as $60 fashion accessories at concerts and flea markets. With the profits and a $35,000 family loan, Woodman continued refining his prototypes on his mother’s sewing machine, moving back home to save money.
There was just one problem: The straps worked fine but the technology didn’t. “Every camera I used would flood or break after a big wipeout,” he says. “I realized I shouldn’t be a strap company, but a camera company.”
Woodman didn’t seem to understand that switching from the sports-accessory industry to the consumer-electronics business (which is dominated by huge companies such as Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic) is akin to going from intramural hoops to an NBA tryout. “Most businesses that enter categories like this don’t bootstrap with one dude going to Starbucks every morning to, like, get himself pumped up for the day, saying, ‘I am doing this!'” Woodman says, laughing at his lack of a strategic plan, team, or money. “Looking back on it, it’s crazy that we’ve gotten to where we are now.”
Maybe not. It’s unlikely that the HD Hero would have emerged from a digital-imaging company. The industry’s leaders were busy trying to stuff more bells, whistles, and megapixels into shiny cameras for the masses. No matter how obsessively he looked, Woodman could not find a camera he could transform into a tough-as-nails rig that would work in any kind of action. “I went to all the major camera shows, walking every aisle, and I’m maniacal,” he says, “When I say I looked at every booth, I looked at every booth twice.”
It took him two years to track down a Chinese company online that made an inexpensive, reusable camera for snorklers and was willing to modify the design to accept strap mounts. Woodman’s original camera used 35-mm film even as the rest of the market was swiftly moving to digital. He couldn’t afford it at the time. And since he didn’t know how to render a 3D CAD model, he made an old-school prototype, using a Dremel tool, plastic blocks, and glue. He mailed it to China, wired $5000, and crossed his fingers. “I had no idea if I was dealing with a real factory or a sham,” he says.
It turned out the manufacturer was legit, and GoPro was in business. At an action-sports trade show in San Diego in 2004, the company landed its first customer: a Japanese distributor that ordered 100 cameras. (The celebration was tempered on the show’s final night when Woodman’s VW bus was stolen.) By 2005, GoPro still had only two employees—Nick and his buddy Neil Dana. In 2006, the firm came out with its first Digital Hero camera, and Woodman fulfilled a lifelong dream by enrolling in auto-racing school. He strapped a Digital Hero to the roll bar, but the punishing vibrations destroyed the camera’s internal components and rattled the batteries off their connectors. The experience prompted a redesign that resulted in a product line that is essentially mil-spec.
The phenomenon that truly launched GoPro was a collision of good timing and lucky engineering. In the fall of 2006, Google bought a little company called YouTube, and by sheer dumb luck the 3-megapixel Digital Hero 3 with VGA video launched in spring 2007. “The name-brand cameras at the time didn’t shoot very good video,” Woodman says. “It was an afterthought, but within four months, the market had shifted. Our consumers and retailers went from asking, ‘How’s the photo quality?’ for which we had an okay answer, to ‘How’s the video quality?’ for which we had a great answer.” Thanks to YouTube, sales tripled that year and have continued at a similar pace ever since.
But taking high-quality video is only half the equation for GoPro’s success. To make videos worth watching, a camera has to get where the action is. The Hero was designed to be a great camera for surfers, but it turns out the qualities of a good surf camera translate perfectly to other action sports. GoPros are small, light, and waterproof—and their signature wide, nearly fish-eye lenses seem to magically make subjects look, well, more heroic than they might otherwise be. That wide lens shoots your knees and skis, or your hands on the handlebars of a bike. The result is a big, immersive, ego-enhancing image. GoPro cameras are structurally designed to flip the traditional relationship of cameraman to subject, aligning it more closely with the way people shoot video in the YouTube era. The cameraman is the protagonist of his own video, and the lens stretches wide enough to fit in both him and the world he is conquering.
And now the professional crowd has grown to love Heroes. Emmy-winning cameraman Andy Casagrande IV has used them to capture everything from the inside of a shark’s kisser to the inside of a lion pride. “GoPro is revolutionizing wildlife filmmaking,” he says. For Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, Casagrande created the Bite Cam (two Heroes embedded in a foam decoy) to capture the perspective of a seal as it’s being devoured. “Before GoPro, no other cameras offered anywhere near the quality we needed. And since they’re [relatively] cheap, the film industry treats them as nearly disposable cameras.”
Based on data supplied by its retail partners, GoPro estimates that it owns 90 percent of the rugged camera market, which is the place you want to be if you’re trying to sell a device that records video. “In a camcorder market that declined by 30 percent in the 12 months ending February 2012, the waterproof/rugged sector in which GoPro plays rose by 75 percent in revenue,” says Liz Cutting, senior imaging analyst at NPD Group, a market research company.
To see how completely the company dominates the rugged camera market and to understand its influence on action sports, search the term “GoPro” on YouTube. The result: clip after clip of awe-inspiring F/A-18 Hornet rides, avalanche cliff jumps, supercross races—all shot by users. (A search for “Nikon” produces page after page of product reviews.) This is no accident. GoPro employs a social media team charged with nurturing its customer base via daily giveaways and prominent exposure on GoPro.com, Facebook, and YouTube. What the company seems to understand better than its competitors is that a customer showing off what he did with his Hero on YouTube is far more valuable than a clip of him talking about his camera.
Today Woodman and company cater to their fan base with an ever-increasing number of mounts for snow, skate, bike, moto, and virtually any sport in their adrenaline-fueled world. That’s consistent with how Woodman sees GoPro, as the maker of exceedingly rugged building blocks that let customers invent how they shoot, not just what they shoot. Woodman—who wore head-mounted Heroes when his kids were born—imagines a surgeon using a custom capture device in the O.R. that riffs off something a kite surfer devised.
If it all sounds a bit far-fetched, consider that this vision is already playing out. The first step was the 3D Hero System—which uses the built-in Hero Port to combine two 2D cameras into a single 3D device. The new Wi-Fi BacPac allows a smartphone to monitor, control, and stream video from up to 50 cameras. It’s all part of Woodman’s passionate “go big or go home” mindset, which is at the core of the GoPro DNA. It’s what inspires the brand’s loyal users to shoot and share their most intense moments, and it may be the secret ingredient for the company to outmaneuver Sony, Canon, and Apple in the not-too-distant future. “You have to strive to be a top player or you shouldn’t bother doing this in the first place,” Woodman says. “If you’re just muddling along, you’re going to get smoked.”