To reboot GoPro, CEO Nick Woodman went back to basics

Things are looking up for GoPro.

After a tumultuous couple of years — which saw the action-camera company enter and then leave the drone business, get squeezed harder by increasingly competitive smartphone cameras, and ride a steady wave of criticism of its product line — GoPro appears to have found its footing with the well-received Hero 7 Black camera and a return to profitability.

At the center of the company’s renewal is founder Nick Woodman. Woodman joined MashTalk to discuss what it’s been like to be CEO during such a roller coaster of a time. After promising expeditions into media, drones, and 360 video didn’t work out as planned, he’s discarded unrealistic visions for tighter focus. The new GoPro may be less ambitious, but it’s much more confident about what it can offer: high-quality action cameras with a compelling mix of features, value, and usability.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mashable: I feel like founder-CEOs get kind of a bad rap.

Nick Woodman: Uh-oh, this sounds like a setup.

There’s been some issues, but you seem to have weathered that storm. Have you felt pressures?

I’d like to think that I’m through the storm. GoPro is now 16 years old. I started it in 2002. I took the company public in 2014 and we’ve had a challenging past couple of years.

It’s been a roller coaster.

It’s been a roller coaster, but now that we’re more focused, we’re growing the business again. We can talk about that, and we’re looking forward to profitability for the second half of the year and for the fourth quarter. We’re still tracking towards that goal. And we just launched the best-selling new GoPro ever, the Hero 7 Black.

I tried it myself.

What do you think?

We like it a lot, actually. We had the unit — we were testing for the Apple event, the iPhone event. So this was early September and ordinarily, we would’ve brought something sorta bigger or like a gimbal for an iPhone. The video was so smooth. We were so impressed by the stabilization, we said, ‘We’ll just use the GoPro.’

You just did my sales pitch for me. Thanks for that.

It was such a nice compact form factor, I can definitely see how that has been a success. It was, from our reckoning, a very good product

But let’s rewind a bit. You guys were flyin’ high. Let’s be real. You guys had the high stock price, successful IPO… GoPro still was — still is — synonymous with that action camera category. But then sorta things started to sort of go wrong a little bit. Can you tell us what went wrong, some of the reasons why, and what you’ve done to right the ship?

Sure, well that’s a big part of the founder’s journey, I think, how you go from successfully founding and scaling a business and then navigating that growth and getting through your teenage years, as it were, which ironically have been our teenage years at GoPro, to then mature into whatever the future of your business is.

Taking the company public and with as much success and growth as we were having, I think we lost a little bit of sight and focus as to what our role in the world is, and what our customers wanted most from us. I think that at the time, we were so successful, so popular, and growing so quickly that many, ourselves included, believed that we could be successful at anything.

That’s a risk for entrepreneurs. That’s a risk for any businessperson to think that your success in one area of business will translate into success in another area, and if you study other businesses and other big brands, you recognize that very few of them are able to translate success in one area of business into others. Just because you’re a great pitcher doesn’t mean you can go and be a great quarterback, right? 

Now that it’s 2018, we’re a much more focused company. We’re not trying to be all things to everybody. We’re doing a much better job of identifying who our core customer is, and we’re very focused on super-serving that customer and by more narrow in our focus in what we’re trying to solve and who we’re trying to solve for. It allows us to build a better product for that customer, do a better job of marketing that product globally, and the result this year is that we’re growing again.

It’s terrific to have launched Hero 7 Black, the best-selling new GoPro in the company’s history. It makes us really excited about the future, but we went through a period of trying new things and not getting a very good return on that investment. So it feels really good to see such strength in our core business now that we’re focused on it again.

So among those new things was a drone. When was the initial release of the drone?

That would’ve been 2016.

There were some issues with it that you seemed to address, and it seemed like there was some potential there to be had until, it just looked like the main competitor in the field, which is DJI, was just suddenly so dominant. And it used that position to knock out not just you guys, but a ton of other people. Was the failure of the drone more about the product or was it just that the competition was suddenly too hard to overcome?

The primary factor for us exiting the drone business was the cost of development, relative to total demand for consumer drones. At least for us, it didn’t make for a good investment, and if we’re gonna be in a product category, we’re in it to win it. We want to bring a Formula One approach from an innovation standpoint.

When we researched what customers wanted most from us, it wasn’t a drone. It was actually very specific things in camera technology and capability and software, namely our app. We are selling a lot more cameras and there’s a much bigger market for GoPro in cameras than there is in drones. 

That also freed up marketing dollars to grow awareness of GoPro internationally. GoPro is quite well known in North America, to a lesser degree in Europe and the Middle East, and to an even lesser degree in the Asia Pacific region. We’ve seen a really good return on our investment there.

There was also some criticism of the product lineup over a couple of years — that there were too many different cameras. I think there was a camera, the Hero Session, that didn’t have a screen and maybe wasn’t that well received. What was going on during that era? Was there some experimentation?

We experimented with attracting new customers and we, with our marketing as well, tried to broaden the relevance of GoPro, make it a little more everyday and a little more approachable. What we found was and what we’ve learned ultimately is that not everybody needs a GoPro. We don’t need to make GoPro relevant to everybody to be successful.

We need to recognize that a GoPro is a tool for active doers in the world that are engaged in activities that create use-case challenges that can’t be solved conveniently with a phone or with a different type of camera. That’s what a GoPro is uniquely designed for. There are millions of people around the world that are a significant addressable market for us.

So the last couple of years, we’re trying new things and then this last year, which has been our most successful year in the past three, has been focused on super-serving our core customer, building them the best GoPro possible, focusing our marketing efforts on making them aware of how great our new lineup. 

What our fans can expect from GoPro going forward is that we’ll be aggressively advancing camera and app capabilities on their behalf. We have a better understanding of who you all are and what you want from us and we’re building that rather than trying too many new things that doesn’t allow us to do a really deep job of doing any one thing terrifically well.

Let’s talk mobile. I feel like every app has “stories” now. Every app emphasizes imagery. That would seem to really help you guys, but at the same time, smartphones are getting better and better in terms of their own built-in photography.

We live in an age where people are becoming more aware of their own creativity and their own interest in visual expression and sharing of their experiences. That obviously benefits GoPro. The easier it is to share and also the easier it is to discover cool experiences other people are having and watching their content, that helps us market the benefit of having a GoPro. Nobody sells a product or service better than your customer. We’ve seen that grow year after year.

Has there been any particular network or change in apps and networks that created a bump that was above anything else?

It started with YouTube and people’s interest shifted from photography to video. Then it grew with Facebook, as YouTube isn’t the most social of sites, but then when people were able to embed their YouTube video on Facebook, we saw a really significant lift from that. And then Instagram’s taken it even further, thanks to the efficiency of both sharing and consuming content.

Instagram has done a great job of training and teaching people that shorter is better. You can tell a two-minute story in 20 seconds, and it has more punch and then somebody is gonna actually wanna watch what you publish next because they know it’s not too big of a commitment. We have nearly 15 million followers on Instagram and I believe that we’re the No. 1 most engaging consumer electronics brand on Instagram.

How do you measure that?

Comments, likes, just overall engagement with our content. I believe we’re number two or three most engaging consumer product brand of any category on YouTube. So these platforms have been phenomenally helpful in us growing our brand globally.

As it relates to smartphones, yes, they continue to become more capable, but so does a GoPro. And people’s use cases continue to expand as people become more active. Travel is not what it used to be 10 years ago. People are far more adventurous and active when traveling and looking for new experiences. It’s less about sitting around the pool at the hotel and it’s more about getting out and being active.

Participation rates in sports are all up and that obviously is a really rich market for us. If you’re very active and you wanna capture that experience, just the form factor alone of a phone does not lend itself to self capture very well when you’re in motion. Even though phones are waterproof, and to a degree durable with Gorilla Glass and so forth, people don’t consider putting them in harm’s way because their lives revolve around this thing. If you have a problem, break your phone, that’s a big inconvenience

So our super customer is somebody who’s interested in activity on one side and capture on the other side as a hobby and where those two markets intersect, you’ve got a super-customer that we’re very focused on super-serving.

So, Snapchat. They started calling themselves a “camera company” a few years back. For you guys, it’s almost like that scene in Crocodile Dundee where the line is, “That’s not a camera company.” What do you think of how they regard themselves, and what are your thoughts on Spectacles?

I think that them coming out and defining themselves as a camera company is provocative. That’s a big part of their go-to-market strategy and their branding and culture, so I applaud them for being successful and being provocative. I do think that to some degree, it makes sense because they’re seeking to take further what you can do with a smartphone camera than you maybe otherwise could, and so by saying you’re a camera company doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gonna go and make cameras. It could mean that you’re gonna exploit the camera that everybody already has.

In terms of their other products and innovations, I think any company or individual who’s pushing the limits and inventing new things should be applauded.

With regard to smartphone cameras, big players like Google and Apple are doing interesting things, particularly with computational photography and AI. I feel like that’s a very big part of where image capture is going. Can you talk about sort of what you guys either are doing in that space or how you sort of see yourselves competing with that sort of approach?

We at GoPro understand how incredibly important it is to wow our customers. We always wanna exceed expectations and really grab people’s attention with something truly remarkable and so as a result of that, we built a very strong team of image scientists who are helping us invent the future of capture. They are how we designed our own chip, GP1, our own processor, which is in Hero 7 Black and has certain attributes that allowed us to make the breakthrough in innovation which is HyperSmooth video stabilization.

I knew there was a name for it.

It’s the gimbal-like video stabilization built into Hero 7 Black, built into the camera itself, and for most use cases, eliminates the need to use a separate three-axis gimbal to stabilize your video. HyperSmooth is better than a gimbal in many regards because the motion is more natural, and it’s windproof. Gimbals tend to fail at about 30 miles an hour of wind speed. HyperSmooth being built into a GoPro is waterproof, and, to date, there are no waterproof gimbals. We’re saving our customers $200-$300 because they don’t have to go buy a separate device, this gimbal to charge and keep with them and so forth.

When we came out with HyperSmooth and said gimbal-like stabilization, in one interview, somebody asked me, ‘Is it a gimbal killer?’ and I think I said, ‘Yes,’ and then the comments sphere went crazy that I had called it a gimbal killer…

You don’t wanna murder all gimbals.

No! We were having a conversation — I wasn’t like coming out with guns blazing saying it’s a gimbal killer, but people thought that we were just hyping it up. Then, once our customers started to buy and use Hero 7 Black, they said, ‘Son of a gun. This thing works as advertised.’ It’s been really satisfying to see our customers really appreciate HyperSmooth.

More of a gimbal incapacitator then. What’s your take on the state of VR and AR and 360 video? I feel like is quite a bit different than it was a couple years ago. I know you have a 360 camera… 


Can you give me a snapshot of that market?

It’s true that consumers don’t seem to be that interested in video for VR or 360 video. It’s a bit of a novelty. Some content is interesting, some content’s not. It’s a bit of work to view 360 video. It’s a little bit at odds with what somebody wants from an entertainment consumption experience.

In gaming, VR is terrific. It’s immersive, it’s interactive. It really makes you feel like you’re there if it’s done right and so it’s additive to the gaming experience, but when somebody’s gaming, they want to engage. They want to make decisions. They want it to be interactive and spend the mental cycles problem solving and so forth, right? Gaming is a sport.

When you’re watching a video or you’re watching a movie, often the motivation is very different. You’re not looking to engage. You’re not looking to interact and make decisions. You’re looking to relax and be entertained and I think that video VR is maybe at odds with what somebody is wanting to do when they wanna sit back and watch something.

That’s what I would always find: “Did I look in the right place?”

Fortunately, with our own camera, we had a sense for this before we launched it. In the spring, we debuted Fusion as a pilot program because we wanted to get customer feedback as to what they thought of the camera and how they were gonna want to use it.

We learned that our would-be customers were far more interested in Fusion’s ability to allow you to capture everything at once around you, but then later go back and just select the shots that you wanted and then use those to create a traditional fixed perspective video. They weren’t interested in creating 360 VR content with the camera. Learning this, we emphasized development of the what we call “overcapture,” where you recapture just the shots you want from the source 360 file and then you export that as a fixed perspective video clip. That’s what helped Fusion be successful. 

So it’s for the person who just doesn’t want to miss anything, and not necessarily the person who wants to put out 360 video.

Right. It’s the camera that you don’t have to aim. The stabilization is unbreakable. Your picture is floating in a sea of pixels and so as you move the camera around, you can have infinite stability in your image. So there’s a number of breakthroughs in the technology, and that we’re learning with Fusion that we’ll be able to apply to new cameras down the road, be they spherical or otherwise.

Just one more question: I heard your salary is a dollar a year.

That is true.

Do you think you’re gonna ask your boss for a raise?

I’ve gotta earn it.

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