GoPro Founder Nick Woodman

While his staff was celebrating the success of GoPro’s first HD Hero camera in 2009, the now 36-year-old company founder, Nick Woodman, was freaking out. The California-based company was 8 employees.

But that was the turning point for the wearable camera industry leader. GoPro started 2010 with 8 people and finished the year with 55. By the end of 2011, it had 135 people, and it currently sits at about 230.

And its sales have presumably increased with its headcount. Consumer technology analyst firm IDC has estimated GoPro’s 2011 revenue to be about $250 million.

Skiing Business caught up with Woodman to find out how the company that was founded in a van has become a market leader.

What are the secrets of taking a business that essentially started out of your van to an internationally known industry leader?
I think I got lucky because my idea for GoPro centered around two things I’m passionate about: surfing and photography. And that passion has helped get the company to where it is today. It didn’t start as a way to make money. It started as a way to make something that helps people document adventures. We created it for ourselves knowing others would be interested too.

But I bootstrapped and lived with my parents to make this work. I remember driving to Tahoe in my van to open some accounts in winter. I’d sleep in my van and freeze at night because I didn’t want to get a hotel room.

Nick Woodman, GoPro founder

What other growing pains did you experience while bootstrapping, and what advice can you give others to overcome those same hurdles?
The toughest thing for us initially was that this category didn’t exist. People didn’t know that they wanted to document their adventures, and retailers didn’t know their customers wanted to either.

When we started with just a wrist camera for surfers, we struggled because that camera wasn’t right for skiers or bikers. It wasn’t until we created our line of camera mount accessories like the chesty and helmet mount that people understood what we were doing.

We give so much credit to our retailers who have stuck with us when we, at times, didn’t really know what we were doing or were still going through the R&D phase. They believed in us.

Overcoming our obstacles was just a matter of persistence. Many people think GoPro came out of nowhere, but we’ve been around for 10 years. You just have to recognize that creating a real brand, a brand that means something and is part of people’s ever day world, takes time. You need to build a base in order to grow.

As a company founder, how do you balance that growth with staying true to yourself and your vision?
To some extent you have to be self-centered. We build stuff that we want because we think others will want it too. But in doing that, you definitely have to stay true to your brand and maintain your authenticity. For us, it’s been pretty easy to identify new channels and markets to sell our products while remaining true. Any activity that you want to document is a market for us.

Even GoPro employees leave dishes in the sink. (by Mike Lewis)

Some people would argue that selling in Best Buy and Target are examples of selling out though.
Well, specialty is still by far the dominant part of our business from a revenue and focus standpoint. Not everyone who wants to document what they’re doing is participating in active sports. In order to reach them, we can’t only sell via specialty stores, or we’d limit our growth. But hopefully when people see GoPros on the mountain or anywhere else, they’ll want to buy one right away and head to a local specialty store.

So what are your goals for the company?
We’re having a ton of success right now, but I feel like we’re just getting started. To some people, it seems like GoPro is everywhere, but the reality is that most people don’t know about us yet. Right now, we’re in GoPro 2.0 mode. Even though we’ve been around for 10 years, we didn’t launch our first product until 2004, and the category wasn’t noticed until a few years ago. So this is, to some extent, our second first 5 years.

We obviously want to grow in the next 5 years, and I want to continue supporting the partners that are supporting us with things like better in-store displays and things like that. Our retailers have been huge allies, and we want to provide them with a huge growth opportunity and revenue stream. And, of course, we’re always looking at interesting opportunities to help us expand.

Does that include going public?
Going public isn’t something we actively think about. This company is likely the best idea I’m ever going to have in my life, and we’re growing quickly and having fun. We’re not in a hurry to hand over the reins to someone else.

But that does include acquisitions if there’s something that would fit well with the brand. We’ve acquired companies before, and that’s not out of the picture for the future.

What secrets do you have for becoming financially secure enough to make acquisitions and support yourselves?
There really is no secret. Everything at GoPro has grown from an original $265,000. It’s all because of bootstrapping and passion. I didn’t really have a business background prior to GoPro. It’s just a matter of practicality, understanding what your customer wants and is going to want later, and stick-to-itness.

Many businesses are too hung up on making money as a measure of success. But if you create something, especially in the outdoors industry, that has value and people want, then you’ll be successful.

Don’t be afraid to start something in your garage and grow it over the years. Even though GoPro is a camera-oriented company, we flew under the radar in the camera space because we thought of ourselves as a gear company. It didn’t take a ton of money to get it going, and people respect brands that grow from the ground up. We were just committed to not failing and staying true to our brand.

GoPro’s first wrist-mounted, surf-oriented camera. (by Mike Lewis)

You guys have product in so many industries around the globe. What’s your marketing strategy?
The content that people capture is really what’s growing our brand. It’s all of our customers around the world capturing insane video and sharing those videos online. We supplement that with GoPro’s original content, but that’s a big part of our marketing. It’s not about the camera. It’s about sharing the content.

So what does your marketing budget look like?
Our marketing budget: It’s a lot. I won’t divulge our budget, but it’s heavier than most companies, but not tremendously so in terms of our company’s overall budget.

What would you have done differently with the company if you could go back and change something?
I’m not sure I’d change anything. There have been lessons learned the hard way, but if we didn’t make those mistakes, it wouldn’t have led us to where we are now. I followed a passionate idea, hired my best friends and family, and we’ve worked our butts off to get where we are now.

Skiing Business

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