Go Go GoPro: How an upstart camera company launched and thrived in the iPhone era

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

The smartphone revolution has all but obliterated devices whose sole function is capturing images. Icons like Kodak and Polaroid got walloped; camcorders, like the once-posh Flip cam, went out of style; and sales of point-and-shoot digital cameras — which once made obsolete traditional film cameras and drive-thru Fotomats — plummeted, too.

Given all of this rapid obsoletion and general destruction in the photo industry, you might think that the idea of a brand-new camera maker emerging from nowhere in 2002, offering its first device in 2004, and not only surviving, but thriving, in 2013, seems like a pretty remote possibility. And yet, that’s exactly what the ubiquitous action sports pioneer GoPro has accomplished.

GoPro’s success has been so pronounced, and yet so unflashy, that it is easy to forget that the company launched and flourished just at the moment that digital cameras began to get crushed by Apple, Samsung and various other competing camera-phones. But GoPro — which Tuesday announced an updated version of its flagship camera, the Hero 3+, along with a new batch of ancillary products — sold a reported 2.3 million cameras last year alone, to the tune of $521 million. Its founder, Nick Woodman, is a billionaire. With 6.3 million Facebook likes, the camera originally associated with the extreme-sports crowd has exited the skate park, with cultish fans putting its products to a huge range of uses (and uploading the results to YouTube).

Aside from the familiar array of action-sport-style activities — when Red Bull’s Felix Baumgartner parachuted down from space, he wore a GoPro — people have attached them to remote-control helicopters and consumer-oriented drones. There are dog POV videos, of course, and plenty of other animals, too. There was the guy who attached one to his trombone. Here’s a picture of a dentist from inside somebody’s mouth. Here’s what it looks like to race lawnmowers in the snow. And more.

The GoPro brand, and the aesthetic associated with it, has become so familiar that it works as shorthand for an entire category, like a Band-Aid or Q-Tips. You know that mega-viral video of the “GoPro-wearing eagle?” The company still isn’t even sure it actually involved one of its cameras.

But while the most notorious GoPro videos tend to be heart-stopping, jaw-dropping scenes, GoPro the company remains a relatively stealthy success. Sure, GoPro’s rise has been the focus of niche coverage in the business and technology press. But it’s certainly never enjoyed the wide-eyed mainstream media fascination with, say, Instagram and seemingly every other “social” startup.

There are downsides to slow-build awareness, concedes GoPro CEO Woodman. On the other hand, the way the company grew made it look like a niche player until it wasn’t. “We could quietly build our business over the years,” he told me, “and kind of sneak up on the traditional camera guys.”

So how, exactly, in the age of apps and the digitization of everything, did this brand-new gadget maker, in a seemingly doomed category, manage to establish itself? The most recent round of GoPro updates and new products is the perfect excuse to answer — and the perfect answer itself — to that question.

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“I’d just gotten my ass kicked,” Woodman recalls. His first startup, an online game company, had died during the dot-com crash, and he consoled himself with a months-long surfing journey through Australia and Indonesia. During his vacation from the Silicon Valley world, Woodman got an idea for a new company, and it was quite intentionally modest in scope.

“Wrist cameras for surfers,” he says. “That was it. A nice, simple little business.” It was 2002.

In Indonesia, he met Bradford Schmidt, a photography nut, fellow surfer and now GoPro’s Creative Director, Media Production. Schmidt wasn’t sure Woodman had a winning business strategy, but he understood the problem he was trying to solve: Passionate amateur surfers would love to be photographed like pros, but who’s going to do that?

“Nobody wanted to stand on the beach with a big, long lens to take pictures of the other person,” Schmidt recalls. “We both wanted to be out in the water.” (Woodman has said that he zeroed in on self-photography because it gave people like him the option to “go pro” — at least on film.)

The plan to make a wrist strap that would work with any of the waterproof cameras available at the time evolved into making the camera, too. The original, 2.5-by-3-inch version shot 35mm film. Woodman, with the ambition of building what amounted to a family business, debuted it at an action-sports trade show in 2004, basically targeting the surfer market.

This obviously limited vision had an accidental payoff: The ego-crazy extreme athlete — especially the weekend warrior hoping to document out-of-office bravery — craves the very best documentation of his or her exploits. Thus Woodman, who was basically an extreme version of his own ideal customer, sought and embraced every cutting-edge innovation in image capture he could find. New models, in rapid succession, incorporated digital stills, video, audio and every megapixel and memory upgrade the marketplace came up with.

One of these, crucially, was a 170-degree wide-angle lens, which has become the calling card of the GoPro video and which was a solution to a purely practical problem. An “insanely wide-angle lens” on a camera, clipped to the front of his shortboard, was the only way Woodman could get a satisfying capture of his full self in action. “Otherwise I’m documenting my knees,” Woodman says.

This resulted, intentionally or incidentally, in two of four keys to GoPro’s success. One is the now-familiar wide-angle aesthetic. Second is the idea that GoPro isn’t just a device, or a simple camera; it’s a system, a method. The camera company is also an accessory company and mount company: It offers about 20 different mounts today, a whole ecosystem of products.

Of course, that didn’t fully kick in until the third element of the GoPro formula emerged: Woodman realizing he could sell to nonsurfers. Evidently the epiphany was a result of his taking up a new hobby: racecar driving. Turns out a GoPro rigged to the roll bar collects some pretty awesome imagery. Thus began that proliferation of mounts and accessories, in lockstep with constant new iterations of the flagship camera.

All this meshed nicely with the fourth element, which was the rise of YouTube. Self-documentation became America’s (if not the world’s) pastime, and there was GoPro, churning out sturdy devices that could make broadcast-quality captures of our various “extreme” activities. Film and TV professionals started using the camera, too, along with the military, surgeons, dog-owners, lawnmower racers and countless others who wanted to record themselves according to the awe-inspiring standards of a Hollywood blockbuster.

By amassing a string of niche audiences, then, GoPro was able to go mainstream.

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In late 2012, Foxconn Technology group bought an 8.9 percent stake in Woodman’s company, giving it a valuation of $2.25 billion. GoPro’s engineering team had grown from 20 or so people to about 100, and it had just released the Hero 3 — the model it’s updating with Tuesday’s release. The goal for the 3+ line, as described by Director of Product Management Paul Osborne: adding functionality and shrinking the camera.

This is basically always the goal.

The new high-end Black Edition, priced around $400, promises 30 percent better battery life, faster Wi-Fi uploads, improvements to image quality and a new “low light” mode that auto-adjusts frame rates in response to lighting conditions. There is also a new shooting mode dubbed SuperView that’s basically a maximum aspect-ratio default option. The physical 3+ cameras are the same size as the Hero 3, but come with an updated waterproof housing that’s 20 percent smaller and lighter.

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The Hero 3+, from GoPro, in a promotional image.

Also arriving: Similar upgrades to the cheaper Silver and White editions of the camera, and a head-strap mount, a jaws clamp, a new iteration on its chest mount designed for children. All of this, Osborne says, is designed to put the ruggedized device into as many contexts as its users can dream up.

“People are doing all these creative things,” he says, “and they want to capture them and show them off.” GoPro, then, is trying to make it easy for users to take “full advantage of their GoPro moments.”

That phrase, so clearly evocative of the once-familiar “Kodak moment,” says a lot about GoPro’s ambition, and yet the company is a long way from attaining the social status or cachet that Kodak enjoyed for generations. And then there are the competitors: Sony, Canon and a number of smaller and newer companies now offer rival (perhaps copycat) products; and who knows what camera-toting alternatives will emerge from the wearable-tech experiments of Samsung, Google and Apple?

Woodman waves all this away, of course. “I don’t see other devices as a threat,” he says, “because their use case is totally different.” GoPro is for proactive moments, he maintains, frequently involving self-capture. A smartphone is for reactive, incidental captures. This syncs up with the popular theory that while the smartphone explosion has put a pretty good camera and camcorder in everyone’s pocket, the phenomenon has actually increased the desire for cameras that are demonstrably more than pretty good.

But Woodman argues one step further: that GoPro imagery actually heightens reality. He pointed me to video of a pool party at his house: What sounds like the most banal subject in the world is transformed through a single Hero 3+, and a template in GoPro editing software, into an amazing-looking event. Woodman says customers routinely report that in their GoPro captures, things seem to be happening faster, and more explosively, than in real life — making “an experience look better than it really was,” as he puts it. “Insanely immersive and engaging footage,” he concludes, means “people become addicted to your product — because you make them look insanely good.”

If our documentation-crazy culture makes images of practically everything now, it makes sense that we’d want superior documentation of life events that transcend airplane wings, sunsets and brunch. But that’s a notion that’s snuck up on us, just like GoPro did. We didn’t know our lives could look so interesting, until we saw the high-definition footage, and understood: GoPro has better specs than reality itself.

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