a UC San Diego Alumni Publication

 

The Best Ride of Our Lives

Nick Woodman still remembers the day he decided to become a surfer. He was eight years old, standing in his friend Brian’s bedroom. Brian’s family had a house in Hawaii, and his walls in California were plastered with tearouts from Surfer magazine depicting palm trees, beautiful people, and the curling turquoise waves of the North Shore.

“I didn’t even know that world existed,” recalls Woodman, Muir ’97, who grew up surrounded by tech startups in the wealthy Silicon Valley community of Atherton. “But from then on, I knew I wanted to live in that world.”

Thirty years later, Woodman is still in Silicon Valley, but he’s tan and fit and has a cheeky freckled grin that suggests he’s living the good life. He should be grinning. He’s the founder and CEO of GoPro—one of the world’s fastest growing camera companies, now worth an estimated $2.25 billion. He’s created a device that helps people capture and share their passions from the North Shore and way beyond.

It started as a durable wrist-mounted camera for surfers to record their feats in the lineup—effectively helping them “go pro.” Now the palm-size cameras, which sell from $200 to $400, can be fastened to helmets, handlebars, ski poles, and, yes, surfboards to document experiences both ordinary and extraordinary. Last October, the Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner—equipped with five GoPros—jumped from 24 miles above the earth’s surface, breaking the world record for the highest and fastest freefall, and broadcasting it live for all to see. A few months later, the cameras were streaming 30-foot waves at the Mavericks Invitational surf contest in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and a few days after that, snowboard slides and backside airs at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo. For GoPro, this is every-day R&D.

But before surfing inspired Woodman to start tinkering with cameras and wrist straps, it led him to UC San Diego. A high school senior sick of driving 45 minutes to go surfing, he asked himself, what is the best college with the best beachfront? The answer was obvious: that research institution overlooking the legendary lines of Black’s Beach.

There was only one problem. Woodman didn’t get into UCSD. He was accepted at UC Berkeley, and his parents were adamant that he go there. But that meant moving farther from the ocean, and farther from Woodman’s dreams of palm trees and clear seas. He sent in a letter of appeal and, to his surprise, it was granted. Woodman had learned the first lesson for entrepreneurship: Don’t give up.

He moved into Tenaya Hall at Muir College in the fall of 1993. Between Tenaya and Tioga—the closest residential towers to the beach—Woodman immediately found himself part of a fraternity of surfers, something he rarely experienced on the fog-swept shores of Northern California.

“We couldn’t believe we got to wake up every morning and surf Black’s,” Woodman says. “Then we’d go to class, and then surf Black’s, and then go to class.”

He started college as an economics major, following the path of banking and business that he was exposed to as a kid. (His father was an investment banker, who brokered Pepsi’s purchase of Taco Bell). But by the end of his freshman year, Woodman realized that he didn’t like any of the “corporate-y” classes he was supposed to like. Instead, he was drawn to visual arts, writing and acting.

Thinking he might go into video game development, he decided to try computer science and engineering. He had to study harder than ever before, and he quickly realized that the degree would require serious sacrifices that he wasn’t willing to make. He discovered something else, too: He didn’t need to be an engineer to develop products.

“I just needed to know how to communicate with engineers,” Woodman says. “I could focus on my creative skills to come up with better product ideas and just be a more creative individual. Then I could team up with engineers later to produce something. That realization was big for me.”

Despite flack from friends and family, Woodman dove head-first into a visual arts degree. He became especially fond of his sculpture classes and enjoyed staying up all night installing art pieces near the Hump and on Sun God lawn. He loved getting to school early the next morning to stand on the sidelines and watch the reactions from his classmates and teachers. “It was phenomenal,” he remembers. Lesson number two: Follow your passions.

In addition to pursuing sculpture, and later, photography, Woodman continued to surf, honing his skills alongside the band of brothers that he met during freshman year. When it came time to move off campus, a group of the guys rented a house on La Jolla Shores Drive. It had an empty swimming pool where the gang used to skateboard, and a garage where Woodman lived with his ever-expanding collection of gadgets.

“He had drums; he had guitars; he had three snowboards,” says Jill (Scully) Woodman, Muir ’99, who met her future husband in art class. “The boys were not clean, either. Their answering machine was a homemade spoof on the song ‘The Freaks Come out at Night’ that said ‘the rats come out at night,’ because I think the rats literally did come out at night.”

Justin Wilkenfeld, Muir ’97, remembers nighttime surf sessions, trips to Trestles and Baja, and Woodman’s growing tendency to try new things and take risks.

“Nick was always charging, whether he was downhill skateboarding on La Jolla Shores Drive at pretty high speeds or paragliding off the cliffs without training,” Wilkenfeld says. “He was always living a little bit on the edge.”

Woodman should have known he would become an entrepreneur. He spent entire nights constructing wooden airplanes as a young boy (only to crash them the next morning), and he made and sold T-shirts for his surf club in high school. But it wasn’t until he was out of college that he really buckled down to develop a business. When he was 22, he told himself that he had until age 30 to start a successful company. If he hadn’t become an entrepreneur by then, he’d resort to working for someone else, which for him sounded like a recipe for depression.

Two years later, he raised enough money for his first venture: an online games and contest website called Funbug. “It would have crushed it in today’s era of social media,” Woodman says. But 1999 was too early, and the company failed in the dot-com bust of 2001 and 2002, taking nearly $4 million in investment money with it. He was 26.

In desperate need of a break and a million-dollar idea, Woodman planned a surf trip to Australia and Indonesia. He wanted to relive the inspiring lifestyle of surfing and creating that he experienced while at UCSD. With the prospect of getting a real job weighing heavily, Woodman started toying with a wrist strap that he could attach to a camera, and document what he thought might be his last epic surf adventure. At the time, you could buy a disposable waterproof camera with a rubber band–type strap, but the cameras flopped around, often falling off or snapping back into a surfer’s board or face. Woodman envisioned a strap that tethered a camera tight to his arm, allowing for quick and reliable access in the water. That’s when it hit him. He had his next idea: a wearable camera. He just didn’t know how good it was.

After traveling for five months and testing out his wrist strap in the punishing surf of the South Pacific, he returned home to Northern California to start work on his prototypes. He moved into his dad’s house in Sausalito, where he spent day and night hopped up on coffee and Red Bull sewing wetsuit material, drilling holes into plastic cases, and learning how to write patent applications. He scoured tradeshows and online warehouses to find a cheap camera that he could modify with his strap and waterproof housing. For more than two years, he stopped surfing, seeing friends, and going out on weekends.

“There were times when I felt like I was going crazy,” Woodman says. “I had to walk to Starbucks to see people and not feel like I was just talking to myself all day. And then I’d walk back to my room and hole up. That’s what it took for me.”

On September 15, 2004, Woodman released the first GoPro Hero film camera and wrist strap at the Action Sports Retailer convention in San Diego. Woodman felt his hard work start to pay off when a Japanese buyer bought $2,000 worth of the 35-millimeter cameras. He also felt the need for more manpower.

When the second tradeshow rolled around, Woodman’s friend from college Neil Dana, Muir ’96, had just come back from a road trip through Latin America. He was looking for a job and offered to help Woodman at the show. Dana was an enthusiastic salesman, and Woodman had a lot more fun with a friend around. It was someone to set up and tear down his booth, push products, and generally joke around with. A month later, Dana became the first employee of Woodman Labs.

“What I learned from Neil was that if I hired my friends, it’s not a job,” Woodman says. Lesson three.

The company made $350,000 in sales the next year, the same year Woodman turned 30. The cash flow allowed him to hire more employees, starting with his college girlfriend, Jill, followed by three other UCSD buddies—Justin Wilkenfeld, Ruben Ducheyne, former Muir student, and Vince Geluso, Marshall ’97—over the course of the next few years.

By 2006, GoPro had eight employees, most of them doing sales. Half of the group worked out of a 1910 blacksmith’s barn tucked behind the house Nick and Jill were renting in Pescadero, a coastal town of about 700 people nestled under the clouds between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. The team put in 12- to 20-hour days in that redwood barn, five people and five cats.

“My nose would be dripping. Jill would wear a scarf. We were all freezing,” Geluso says. “Nick sat up in a loft area, where he could hear all of our phone conversations and make sure we were making sales calls.”

The long work days were broken up by tradeshows, which usually required renting a Pensky truck and putting Neil in the driver’s seat while Nick played co-pilot and Jill sandwiched herself between the two on a footstool.

Then GoPro released its first high-definition camera, the Hero HD, at the end of 2009. It was a cinematic-grade, wide-angle video camera compatible with all the various mounts for which the company is now famous. Geluso remembers the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) tradeshow in Las Vegas in the spring of 2010, where the pack of surfers was selling the cameras off the sales floor for cash.

“Everybody’s pockets were literally bulging,” Geluso says. “That’s when it was getting fun. It was like the Afterschool Special movie when the lemonade stand started really going good.”

Really going good might be an understatement. The HD Hero brought in $64 million by the end of 2010. Woodman’s rootsy family business was about to explode.

“As any creative process goes, the ball gets rolling and you notice things you could do better,” Woodman says. “Then you wake up one morning and the company you started with your college friends is the fastest growing digital capture company in the world.”

Today GoPro has 500 employees working out of four offices, two of them in China. Sales have more than doubled every year since the cameras first came out, surpassing the $500-million mark with the latest model, the HD Hero 3, in 2012. Last December, GoPro beat out the reining champion, Sony, in digital imaging sales at Best Buy, and the Chinese electronics manufacturer Foxconn made a $200-million investment, boosting the company—and Woodman—to billionairedom. Athletes aren’t the only ones using GoPros anymore. They’re now stocked on the sets of Hollywood films, reality TV shows, and evening news broadcasts. They’ve been up into space and down Chilean mines. A new GoPro video is posted to YouTube every two minutes.

And the cameras have come back to UCSD, says Eric Terrill, Marshall ’93, Ph.D. ’98, director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Scientists there are deploying the rugged devices to map the sea floor and study fish aggregations. The cameras are also being used to locate wrecked World War II ships and aircraft as part of an effort to return unaccounted veterans to the United States. And researchers are working with GoPro to create inspirational media that will help kids become more interested in math and science.

“The same people who like watching guys jump off motorbikes are, I think, getting more curious about what’s in the ocean,” Terrill says.

This ability to help people discover new interests, whether it’s surfing or engineering, is the most rewarding part, Woodman says.

“Now professional content is inspiring kids around the world to pursue their passions, just like I was inspired by those Surfer magazine tearouts on the wall,” he says. “That’s like a cosmic full circle for me that’s hugely satisfying. How impactful could that be? Use my life as an example. In surfing terms, there are some waves, like Desert Point in Indonesia, where you start off easy, but as you go down the line, the wave keeps growing, and the barrel keeps getting bigger and bigger. You keep going faster and faster and faster. When people ask me what it’s like, I say it’s kind of like that. For my friends and me, this is the best ride of our lives.”

Serena Renner, Revelle ’08, is a former Triton magazine intern and now the assistant managing editor of AFAR magazine.


A Snapshot of GoPro
How Nick Woodman, Muir ’97, created a digital empire.
1983
  • At age eight, Nick Woodman discovers Surfer magazine and decides he wants to “live in that world.
1987
  • Woodman takes up surfing after receiving his first board as a birthday gift from his mother.
1993
  • September: Moving into Tenaya Hall at Muir college, Woodman says: “Going to UCSD was like going to heaven.
1997
  • June: Woodman graduates UCSD with a B.A. in visual arts and a minor in creative writing.
1999
  • He starts his first company, a games and contest website called Funbug.
2002
  • March: Funbug fails in the dot-com bust. Woodman sets out on a surf trip to Australia and Indonesia, where he experiments with the first GoPro wrist straps.
  • October: Woodman Labs, the parent company of GoPro, is founded.
  • September: The first GoPro camera, the 35-mm Hero, is shown at the Action Sports Retailer convention in San Diego.
2004
  • October: Neil Dana, Muir ’96, is hired as the first employee of Woodman Labs.
2005
  • GoPro makes roughly $350,000 during its first year, and Woodman reaches his goal of becoming a successful entrepreneur by age 30.
2006
  • Fall: GoPro, now with eight employees, releases its first digital video camera, which shoots footage in 10-second bursts.
2008
  • October: The company comes out with the five-megapixel Digital Hero 5 and camera mounts for helmets, ski poles, car frames and surfboards.
2010
  • The high-definition Hero HD drives the company to end the year with $64 million in revenue.
2011
  • May: GoPro receives $88 million in outside investment.
2012
  • Lucasfilm’s movie Red Tails contains scenes shot using GoPro cameras.
  • October: GoPro launches the HD Hero 3. The company ends the year with $521 million in sales.
  • October 14: Austrian stunt devil Felix Baumgartner uses five GoPro Hero 2 cameras in his 24-mile sky dive.
  • December: China’s electronics manufacturer Foxconn invests $200 million. GoPro’s estimated value is $2.25 billion.
2013
  • June: GoPro hires its 500th employee, with headquarters in San Mateo, Calif., and satellites in Cardiff, Calif., Hong Kong, and Shenzhen, China.