People Profiles: Nicholas Woodman

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When Felix Baumgartner threw himself from a 24-mile-high platform in 2012, he broke both the sound barrier and multiple world records. He also had five cameras strapped to his body – all of them made by GoPro.

The lightweight and wearable cameras have become essential kit for adrenaline junkies, capturing dare-devil footage the world over. For dedicated GoPro CEO, Nick Woodman, his is a fascinating personal journey from surfer-traveller to one of America’s youngest and newest billionaires in a little over ten years, and he doesn’t show any signs of stopping there.

At high school Woodman was confident and athletic, but he’d dropped most other team sports in favour of his true life calling: surfing. As a sideline he was building remote control gliders in his spare time; both would prove unexpectedly useful in later life. There were early signs of his natural ability as a salesman; selling t-shirts at high school football games (extra pocket money for surfing trips) and touting bead necklaces along the California coast out of his beloved VW van during his travels at age 26. But few would have predicted the phenomenal success that was to come.

Or would they? There’s clearly a lot more to Woodman than ‘mad’ surfer-turned-entrepreneur, if his rise from school surf champ to business mogul is anything to go by (although surfing is still a passion). He clearly has the qualities you’d expect from an elite entrepreneur performing at the top of their game. Look beneath the action hero and the boundless energy, and you find a self-confessed work obsessive who’s driven by an intense fear of failure.

Woodman studied Visual Arts at the University of California in San Diego (mainly because of its proximity to the ocean) before going on to gain experience as a tech analyst at a private equity firm and then from two web-based startup companies that he created during the dot-com frenzy (albeit doomed ones). The first, a website called EmpowerAll, sold electronic goods and failed to get off the ground. The second, Funbug in 1999, was a retro gaming site where gamers could win cash prizes. He’d raised USD $3.9 million of investment before the economy nose dived a year later and he lost it all.

These first two defeats were undoubtedly a knock for Woodman, but rather than giving up he chose to see them as valuable lessons. He was still only 26 and went on a 5-month surf trip to gather some perspective, where he first formed the idea for GoPro.

Frustrated at not having the right equipment to capture his surfing action shots, he was making do with a Kodak disposable camera attached to his hand by a rubber band. He immediately spotted an opportunity.

By the time he’d returned back to the US, the idea had taken hold and he was ready to combine his passion for extreme sports with his next project: the creation of a lightweight, attachable, all-action video camera.

But Woodman set himself a timeframe: 4 years to make it as an entrepreneur, or in his own words he would; “go out and get a real job”. To show his dedication he moved in with his parents and set to work racking up 18-hour days, seven-days-a-week, to build his first prototype. Combined with an additional $35,000 borrowed from his mother, he started selling GoPro cameras just two years later, in 2002.

The months Woodman spent sewing together old surfboard leashes and sticking plastic together with glue eventually paid off. When he needed a camera that he could modify and license as his own, he sent his plastic cases and $5,000 to a company named Hotax, based in China. Woodman received his 3-D models and renderings a few months later. His first release, a 35-millimetre waterproof film version, was snapped up everywhere from surf shops to home shopping network, QVC. He continued exhibiting at action-sports trade shows before eventually landing the big stores like REI and Walmart.

GoPros are now so ubiquitious the landscape of action cameras has been changed forever. Costing as little as $200 (up to to $400) and appearing on bicycle handles, ski helmets, cars – anywhere you can think of, it’s easy to see the appeal. In the hands of the right athletes the footage shot on a point-of-view action camera is YouTube gold. Last month, GoPro released new footage of the jump capturing the entire Baumgartner freefall in astonishing detail, including the out of control spin that almost cost him his life, and drawing in 13 million YouTube views. The GoPro Facebook page currently has over 7 million likes and growing.

In 2012 GoPro sold 2.3 million cameras, generating revenues of USD $521 million, according to Forbes, and so far it’s received almost $300 million in venture funding, with the largest round pulling in USD $200 million in December 2012 from FoxConn, the Asian manufacturing company known for its contract work with Apple and Hewlett-Packard. That investment valued the company at USD $2.25 billion and still reportedly left Woodman with ownership of almost half of GoPro. As of 2013 the company, operating out of San Mateo, California, has placed Woodman on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans with a reported net worth of USD $1.3 billion. He still remains intricately involved, managing an in-house group of around 130 engineers.

Crucially, GoPro’s exponential growth hasn’t been threatened by the phenomenon of Smartphones replacing traditional point-and-shoots. Far from it. GoPro’s app turns your phone into a remote control with live previews and instant sharing. It extends user experience so the company has been perfectly positioned to benefit from the now ubiquitous Smartphone technology.

Having conquered the all-action camera market, what’s next? GoPro’s are becoming increasingly advanced with new accessories and mounts making the equipment more versatile than ever. But Woodman has his sights set on capturing all of “life’s precious moments”, and creating a global ecosystem where “capturing, sharing, viewing and creating content on any device at any time in any place is convenient, effortless and cost-effective”. Not bad for a surfer just looking for a way to take some good action shots.

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