AIB Featured Business Leader – Nick Woodman
They say that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but Nick Woodman isn’t likely to be called dull any time soon. He surfs, he dabbles in racecar driving and he jets around the world demonstrating the extremes that his products can withstand. Oh, and he became a billionaire in the process by making fun his business. Woodman is the founder and CEO of GoPro, Inc, which makes cameras designed for action sports.
Woodman grew up in Silicon Valley, with his father who founded the investment bank Robertson Stephens. Befitting a boy born and bred in California, Woodman fell in love with surfing at just eight years old, following that passion with extraordinary zeal. In high school, he formed a surfing club and sold surf t-shirts to raise money for it. Classmates remember him as high energy, waking them up at dawn to go surfing before class.
When it came time to apply for college, he was rejected from his top choice, US San Diego, which he’d picked for its proximity to the surf. He appealed, and the college admitted him. He graduated in 1997 with a BA in visual arts, a minor in creative writing and a serious girlfriend named Jill. The couple, now married, have three sons.
In the early 2000s, upon graduating, Woodman did what everyone in Silicon Valley was doing and started a web venture. His first attempt was EmpowerAll, a retail reseller, and the second a game company called Funbug. Funbug had modest initial success and Woodman was able to raise $4M for it, but the dotcom bubble burst, and took Funbug with it. Woodman, then 26, took the loss personally. Seeking inspiration – and a break – he planned a five month surfing holiday around Australia and Indonesia.
He wanted to be able to document the holiday, including the parts of it spent out on the water, and for that he needed a camera. Cashed-up surfers paid professionals to document their runs or bought expensive waterproofing equipment. Woodman and his friends could afford neither. Seeking a solution, they bought disposable cameras and attached them to their wrists with rubber bands. From there, the idea for GoPro was born. GoPro initially only manufactured straps designed to tether existing cameras to someone’s arm, keeping them safe and available for an action shot. Woodman envisioned the market as including surfers, but also other extreme sportspeople: mountain claimers, for example, as well as race car drivers who wanted a less pricy option than the specialised cameras already in the industry.
Woodman obtained initial funding from his parents to the tune of $260,000 along with the loan of his mother’s sewing machine. He sewed the first straps himself, trying out different designs until he found one that worked well, and along with his partner Jill, then travelled the California coast selling the straps. They marketed the product at surf shows, trade shows and out of the back of the van. In 2004 he sourced a cheap but durable camera to go with the strap, and sold the package as the GoPro Hero. Sales soared.
By 2005, as Woodman celebrated his thirtieth birthday, the company was generating $350,000 in annual revenue, all without looking to venture capital. He attributes the quick result in part to his lean approach to marketing: Woodman himself appeared as the initial model for the product, including on the packaging. Although that changed as the company grew, he’s remained the ‘face’ of the company; sporty, good looking and exuberant in his personal branding as in his business.
In 2009, GoPro took its new product, the Hero HD camera, to a trade show and sold out before the end of the day. Pockets were bulging, and soon so were the coffers: GoPro generated $64 million within the year. The company bought a Lotus Exige racing car in which Woodman would test new products while racing around the track at 130 miles per hour. It’s not the only example of Woodman mixing business and pleasure: in 2014 the company sponsored the Association of Surfing Professionals, fielding a company surf team that includes the legendary Kelly Slater. GoPro also owns a Gulfstream jet, used for trips to show off new products when they’re not on the track.
GoPro now has more than 500 employees, and in March 2013 Woodman made his first appearance on the Forbes billionaires list when electronics manufacturer Foxconn made a significant investment in the firm. January 2014 saw the company win a Technology and Engineering Emmy, and in the same year, the company went public, closing at $31.34/share by the end of the day, making Woodman the US’s highest paid Chief Executive. Both his sisters and parents, all of whom held shares, hit millionaire status at the same time. Wanting to share some of the wealth, Woodman and his wife donated $500 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, making him one of the biggest donors of the tech industry in 2014.
In 2015, he appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert as well as Shark Tank. But 2015 also saw a downturn in GoPro’s fortunes, with stock falling a staggering 70%. By January of 2016 the layoffs started. The initial slump had been caused by poor sales of the latest product, with investors disappointed that GoPro hadn’t been able to break out of its original mould and innovate further. Woodman, however, is upbeat as always. Over the past three years, he and his team have been building a software team, focusing on photography and video editing software aimed not just at current GoPro camera owners, but everyone. He hopes that when the products from that venture are released, the fortunes of his company will be reversed. Meanwhile, his personal spending reflects his optimism: in December of 2015 he commissioned a luxury yacht, estimated at around $US40M.
In a volatile industry, nobody can predict whether GoPro’s fortunes will rise or fall. But the extraordinary energy of its founder leaves little room for doubt that whatever comes next will be well worth watching.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: CNBC, Business Insider Australia, Business Insider, Shark Tank, Forbes and The Verge.