Ever since his days at the University of California at San Diego in the late 1990s, Nicholas Woodman wanted a way for him and his surfing buddies to capture their exploits without having to take turns sitting on shore with a camera and telephoto lens. “No surfer wants to be the photographer, especially when the waves are good,” he says.
Woodman, 36, eventually decided to solve the problem and founded GoPro in 2002. GoPro makes a small, durable, lightweight (just 3.3 ounces) camcorder and special mounts to attach the device to surfboards, helmets, ski poles, car hoods, or pretty much anything else. It’s become a phenomenon in the world of extreme sports, with back-country snowboarders, kayakers, scuba divers, and others using it to document their feats. Woodman’s company has sold hundreds of thousands of them through sports shops and is only now reaching beyond its X Game base with national TV ads and a distribution deal with Best Buy (BBY). “It’s a very cool story,” says Christopher Chute, an analyst with IDC. “GoPro may well be the world’s fastest-growing camera company.”
The stepson of Irwin Federman, a chip industry pioneer and successful venture capitalist, Woodman started an Internet marketing firm after college, but it didn’t survive the dot-com bust. He decompressed with a five-month surfing trip to Indonesia and Australia, where he began testing prototypes of a wrist-mounted camera. Once he got the design right, he borrowed and raised $30,000—in part by selling Indonesian bead-and-shell necklaces from the back of hisVolkswagen bus—and hired some buddies to cold-call surf shops and ask them to stock GoPro’s Hero line of cameras.
Corporate giants such as Samsung have worked on wearable camcorders for years, but GoPro’s devices, which cost $180 to $300, stand out for image and sound quality, ease of use, and ruggedness. They’re waterproof to 180 feet and drop-proof from 3,000 feet. (One was dropped from that height by a skydiver, who still uses it.) A skier can attach one to his helmet to record what he sees and another to the tip of his ski to film himself. The cameras are also becoming a staple on TV, where they have been used to help film dozens of reality shows, including Deadliest Catch and Whale Wars. George Lucas is using them to shoot part of his next film, Red Tails.
Woodman, who says GoPro is profitable enough to go public, wants to expand beyond hardware into media. One idea is for a cable show featuring extreme sports videos shot by GoPro users. The push into content is one reason Steamboat Ventures, the venture capital arm of Walt Disney (DIS), recently invested in GoPro. Says Beau Laskey, managing director of the fund: “There’s the potential for this to be much more than a camera company.”