GoPro became a household name for action-sports enthusiasts in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
But the technology company from California has been testing iterations of this miniscule camera since 2006 when Founder and CEO Nick Woodman set out to make a wrist strap to hold disposable cameras during surf sessions in remote areas around the world. The current Hero 3 model is a far cry from rubber bands wrapped around a Kodak 35mm single-use camera, but they didn’t get there over night. GoPro’s story is one that offers a glimpse at true innovation in an industry not necessarily known for taking risks. In this interview, Cyrus Sutton for Korduroy.tv starts at the beginning with GoPro’s Creative Director Brad Schmidt and continues through the prototyping process, what it took to convince people that the camera could actually do what they showed it could do, and the rise of social media. This is a start-up that goes from the beaches to the mountains to 30,000 feet up in the air and back again without breaking a sweat. Here is a bit about how it happened:
Cyrus: I remember looking in a surf shop and just seeing this little micro silver camera thing, and then coming to the point where it is now…Hollywood is using it, it’s one of the highest quality cameras out there in the market, Sony and all of these other companies are coming out and trying to play catch-up and they can’t even. So I would love to just pick your brain, starting with that boat trip where you met Nick in Sumatra and just how it all started.
Brad Schmidt for GoPro: Yeah, let’s go for it. I think what you’re talking about with the quality of the camera and it being embraced by Hollywood and one of the most fascinating things is the organic community that has grown from just the simple fact that we’re giving a product to the world and the world is creating its own content.
KTV: Well, it’s a testament to the quality of the product. It’s so small and it’s so easy to travel with and it makes your adventures and what you’re doing look so good. So maybe take us through the evolution and the milestones. Obviously, it started as a film camera that actually took 35mm film…
BS: Originally, what was interesting was that Nick had started a company after he graduated from UCSD called Fun Bug, which was essentially during the dot com era, late 90s, and he did ok. He had gotten a lot of investor money and he wanted to make this centralized gaming community online for all old games like Atari. It ended up going bust and since he had convinced a lot of investors, when that went bust he felt really guilty about it. You know, convincing a bunch of people to invest in you and then when it fails, it’s a hard thing. So I think for him it was a hard thing to take. He had saved up a little bit of his own personal money and decided ‘well, instead of sitting here feeling sorry for myself, I’m going to just stretch my brain out and go on a surf trip for like, six months.
And a couple months over that time period, he and his UCSD friends were thinking about how everyone had tried the disposable cameras to go out and surf because nobody wanted to stay and take pictures. After having rubber bands break and everything else, it was one of those things that was more hassle than it was worth. So Nick had taken a broken surf leash and basically came up with a series of little rubber bands and a hinge to put on the surf leash…you were able to slip any camera onto this little tiny rig. And then I think when he went to Indo, he and his girlfriend at the time, now wife and mother to his two kids, Jill, they were in Bali for a little bit and he had even…he had said to me ‘I remember in Bali, another surfer was running up and down Kuta Beach trying to find their 35mm disposable Kodak camera and I remember him telling me ‘man, I really think this wrist wrap could take off.’ He originally just wanted to make a wrist wrap, didn’t even want to make a camera.
When I met him, we were on a ferry from Padang to the Mentawais. During that time period, I think Nick and I really hit it off. I was traveling for a lot of years and continued to travel even after I met him for about six years. … Anyway, he went back and probably two years later he called or emailed and said ‘hey, I have a prototype, I’d really like to send it to you.’ … At that point, the camera was like a 35mm camera. He had gone to China and realized basically that making a wrist wrap was more complicated for other products because he would have to get licensing and there were all these legal issues so he was like ‘screw it, I’m just going to go to China and get a camera made for the wrist wrap’ and so that’s kind of how the introduction to even going into cameras evolved because it was less expensive and easier for him to just go to China and get a camera designed, that was reusable, than to do the Kodak/Fuji route. So that’s what he had done.
He developed it and I think from the get-go personally, myself, I was always kind of his first customer. That’s how the media group really formed. He would send me prototypes and I would be out traveling or doing whatever and I would send him photographs or I would give him feedback like ‘hey, the wrist wrap is uncomfortable’ or ‘the rubber band, we should really think about doing this…’ You know, at that point it was just about me helping a really good friend that I had met traveling. I was always excited because he was sending me cool stuff.
The big ideas after that were like ‘how do we get this camera off the wrist?’ or ‘how do we get this camera that you can put anywhere?’ At the time, we were still only thinking surfing. And no matter what, we had a 50mm and I think right around that time he came out with the first digital one and it would only record for about 10 seconds and it was like 18 or 19 frames per second at 240 pixels, it looks like Super 8 footage. It’s really funny. That would have been, I feel like it was 2006.
From 240, he jumped to standard-def. Once he jumped to standard-def and that whole time period was trying to get the camera off the wrist, we were taking basically little tiny wide angle adapters that were made by Swan and just the same as the wide angle adapters you can stick on the back of the iPhone. It was right at the advent of social media, YouTube, Facebook had just started. People were like ‘hey, I really want to upload something to this thing called YouTube,’ and the camera at this point was really starting to make some money. I can remember when the standard-def wide came out, he was headed to ASR and he sent me to Indo like a week before to try to get some really great shots that would show the wide angle lens.
So I did and he was like ‘hey, I’m actually going to pay you for it this time,’ and I was like ‘nooooo,’ he was like ‘no, I am, I’m going to pay you $1,000’ and I was like ‘noooo, you can’t do that. If you cover my flight, it’s fine, we’ll figure it out.’ And then when I came back and I had all the footage and I was editing it together for the tvs, all of a sudden I’m looking around and the booth had gone from little Roman pillars with foam core board from Kinkos to like, he had a motorcycle, he had a race car with the cameras on it. He had realized at that point that it wasn’t just for surfing. As soon as that break through happened with the expansion of the market, it became infinite, it became enormous. Flash forward about eight months, a year, it was 2009, summer of 2009, I had just graduated from film school and he had a little cardboard box that he sent me. I was sleeping on my friend’s couch in Ocean Beach in San Diego trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life after graduating from school. He sent me a little box and he was like ‘I think this is it, this is the one we’ve been talking about and waiting for.’
It was the first HD camera, it was HD 1 and he said ‘I need you to book a ticket to Puerto, ASR is starting in another couple weeks and you should go down there with Jamie Sterling and some of his friends. Just do the same thing, show what you can do with this camera.’ And so I did. I went down there for two weeks and another filmmaker named Abe had taken it to Mt. Hood at the same time. I was astounded. I couldn’t believe that this little tiny box could create an HD image. And so suddenly all those little worries about it being a toy, suddenly dissipated. I was like ‘wow, this is incredible. This is something that everybody would use professionally.’
So when I was down in Mexico and I shot, I can still remember Gabriel Villarain and Jamie [Sterling]. We would go and shoot and then we’d be in one of those little cafes in Puerto and we would look over the footage and it was like 720/60 and we were like ‘oh my gosh, you can see it in slow motion.’ And it was the first time we had really ever seen unique perspectives like that in slow motion. It was mind blowing.
You always had to kind of convince athletes to wear the camera or to use the camera. There was always a certain like, ‘uhhhh, I dunno man.’ You know, it was a toy for them as well. They were going to get down with it if they wanted to play around a little bit but it wasn’t really thought of as next level. I remember being in some of those cafes and it would be myself and Jamie and Ramon or whatever and suddenly you would have maybe 30 people all crowded around and being like ‘look at that in slow motion.’ People were freaking out and I can remember a big swell came through. For two weeks were just getting pretty unbelievable content. So when I came home Nick said ‘hey, I want you to come start up the media division. Do what you’re doing and build a media company.’
So I moved up to San Francisco and just started working like crazy. All of us were. There was only about 12 of us in the company at the time. We were in Half Moon Bay. We had just moved into a little office. And that was it. We were all working seven days a week, like really working seven days a week. My record might have been like 48 days in a row or something like that. The whole idea of the media company at the time was to help people believe that this camera could really do what it’s doing. What I would do is I would go shoot Puerto and I would come back and I would edit like crazy just to get it stitched together and then I would fly off again to some place and do kayaking and then I’d fly off to Vegas to do trophy trucks and racing and I’d fly off again to go do something else.
So it was like back to back to back just to reach out to as many different markets as we thought we could get just to show people what it was straight out of the camera. That was the key because when you look at any of the comments that happened on our YouTube channel, everyone always said ‘bullshit,’ like, ‘there’s no way that camera is producing that image,’ ‘you guys are cheating,’ ‘I thought I saw somebody with a DSLR in the background of that one video.’ So they would pick apart our videos to try and debunk it. At the time, it was like ‘we’ve got 300,000 hits on this video, OH MY GOSH.’
HD 3 was really the advent of us not just catching up to everybody or keeping pace, it was us going beyond everybody else and making that leap forward and really becoming bleeding edge as far as technology not just form factor or durability. So we had made a competitive camera that goes up against all the other camera companies just simply from resolution and frame rates as well as form factor.
KTV: I’ve been able to use a lot of different cameras in making films and doing stuff for the web and I would say probably your Hero 2 and even the original Hero but definitely the Hero 2, it was better than anything on the market that was able to do what it did. But then the Hero 3, it just blows away anything as far as the clarity of the image, the lack of pixelization and obviously that 120 at 720, and the 2K and the 4K, all those options. What do you think, internally, without giving away too much proprietary information, with the company, what was the atmosphere that allowed for that kind of transcendence of the curve that these very well established tech companies have done.
BS: That’s a really good question. How did we transcend? There are a couple different theories. And it’s hard, but one of the theories is, you could kind of take an Orwellian approach that says maybe a lot of these companies, they are not into doing risky business. They are not risk takers. Maybe these companies all sort of know each other. The question is, if I’m all these different tech companies, why not- if we all pace ourselves correctly- why don’t we put a plan together so that we can all release as many products between now and [the making of a 4k camera] that we can all make more money on a slower pace? I guess there is that possible theory. And that we’re not part of that coup d’etat. We’re kind of the left hook that comes out of nowhere. That’s a possible theory.
You know, I don’t know. I don’t know why a lot of these camera companies aren’t racing like we are. We’re going 100 miles an hour and we’re trying to push the envelope on technology and what it can do. We’re still finding stuff out about the sensor and the processor that we didn’t even know six months ago. So, at the end of the day, I think our plan is to push it and give our consumers as much as we possibly can even if it’s not exactly perfect. I think we are our own best customers in that, as a filmmaker, as a content creator, and a person who loves the outdoors, I would rather somebody give me something and say ‘hey, go for it. I’m going to give you as much as I can give you and I can’t guarantee that it’s perfect but I’m doing the best I can,’ vs. the reserved person who is just saying ‘well, I’m only going to give you what I know is perfect.’
On that end, I think what’s so cool about GoPro is that we are taking that risk. We’re willing to put out a bunch of firmware updates that we’re gonna say ‘hey, guess what, we figured this out with the camera. We’ve unlocked this ability.’ That’s probably slightly different than the strategy of a lot of other camera companies. We’re all in technology but we approach it differently. We are the ones that are going to want a camera that can fall out of an airplane at 30,000 feet and still be recording when it hits the ground. Other tech companies are probably not even thinking that, but we are.
So, I think our use-cases are very different. I think where we’re coming from and what we want out of a product is very different.