GoPro Needs a Hero
Can a shift to software save the action camera giant?
By Sean O'Kane | Photography by Vjeran Pavic & Sean O'Kane
The next time you shoot video with your phone, Nick Woodman wants you to edit it with GoPro software. Then he wants you to do that again and again and again. It will be so good and fast and easy that you’ll get a rush, like a surfer riding the barrel of a wave, or a skateboarder stomping the perfect trick. And then that rush will keep you coming back for more. Woodman thinks this could turn you into a "habitual storyteller," and maybe then, if you don’t already own a GoPro, you might want to buy one.
The CEO and founder of GoPro is sitting at his desk on the third floor of the company’s headquarters, located in a severely nondescript business park in San Mateo, California. We’re talking about the next phase of his company and Woodman, typically buoyant in interviews, is having a moment. "One really exciting aspect of our brand is how many people like it, whether they’re a customer or not," he says. "It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, I’m all — it makes me a little bit teary-eyed," he says, actually dabbing the corner of his eye.
2015 was, by all accounts, not a great year for GoPro. The company, famous for wearable cameras targeted toward surfers, mountain climbers, and anyone else living on the edge, shipped more cameras than ever, but its revenue dropped 31 percent between the fourth quarters of 2014 and 2015.
By the end of last year, GoPro’s stock value dropped to less than half of its original 2014 posting price. "Our growth rate has slowed, and some analysts have attributed this to competitive threats and our ability to address a market beyond our core customer," Woodman said during that first investor call of 2016, though he disputed that analysis.
In February, GoPro laid off 7 percent of its staff and scaled back projections. In his first investor call of 2015, Woodman sounded jubilant. During the first one of 2016, he sounded as if he were in mourning.
But when we meet in San Mateo, Woodman (and basically everybody else I speak with at GoPro) seems preternaturally positive. Over the last three years, GoPro has been building a software team from scratch, cobbling together acquisitions and a few key hires into what is now a 100-plus employee division that makes up about one-tenth of the company. Woodman acknowledges that the trend of middling sales figures will likely hold until GoPro releases a set of new devices at the end of this year, including the Hero 5, GoPro’s first drone, and a spherical camera made for general consumers. Meanwhile the new software team, and what it’s building, will herald in a new era at the company, inspire investors, and eventually attract new customers.
In the last four months, GoPro bought, rebranded, and relaunched two powerful mobile editing apps called Replay and Splice — opening up GoPro to users who don’t own any of its cameras. And in the second half of 2016, GoPro will release a desktop editing experience that will rival iMovie and a cloud backend that will tie everything — devices, files, and the overall GoPro experience — together into a single ecosystem.
No one knows what kind of revenue this new branch of the company will generate, and meanwhile, GoPro’s longstanding competitive hardware advantage is shrinking: for years, GoPro was the only one offering up rugged, go-anywhere cameras that could fit in your pocket and still capture amazing footage. But just over the last three years, Sony’s Action Cam line, Garmin’s Virb, TomTom’s Bandit, and a number of startups have entered the market. Sponsorship deals — GoPro’s other bread and butter — are starting to go to the competition.
But Woodman is unfazed. He believes GoPro is on the verge of a major evolution. Previously the company staked its success on hardware; now, Woodman says, he’s betting on software. The future of GoPro, he says, depends on it.
GoPro was born, appropriately enough, on a surfing trip. In the summer of 2002, Woodman was a visual arts grad from the University of California, San Diego who had failed to get a digital marketing startup off the ground. So, he spent five months trolling through Australia and Indonesia, pounding dirt roads in search of prime beaches and surfing spots. Surfers, Woodman noticed, liked to document their runs and professionals hired photographers or paid for waterproofing equipment. But for those on a limited budget, there were few options — the best solution Woodman’s friends could come up with was to rubberband disposable cameras to their wrists and hope they stuck. Woodman saw an opportunity, and, using shell-covered belts bought at a Bali market, set out to make the first GoPro product: a camera strap.
After returning Stateside, Woodman and his girlfriend — now wife — spent months driving along the California coast, selling the straps out of what they dubbed The Biscuit, a 1970s Volkswagen van. Proceeds from his sales went toward founding GoPro and, in 2004, Woodman sourced a cheap-but-durable 35mm camera to sell along with the strap. He dubbed the whole package the GoPro Hero.
The first digital Hero, released in 2006, caught on fast in the extreme sports community which had little in the way of a light, affordable camera with which they could capture their stunts. It was an era in which our hunger for personal documentation and social media sharing was exploding for the first time, and GoPro quickly became a phenomenon. Each subsequent version of the Hero afforded better quality and functionality: the HD Hero shot 1080p footage, the HD Hero 2 added slow motion, and the Hero 3 and 4 brought Wi-Fi connectivity and 4K.
By 2009, Woodman was no longer selling products out of his van, though he was still very much the face of the company. If you look back at GoPro’s YouTube channel you can see a younger, chubby-faced Woodman showing off the camera’s video quality by kayaking around California’s Half Moon Bay or piloting a Formula car around Sonoma Raceway.
Meanwhile, the company was growing at an impressive clip, from dozens of employees to a few hundred. In 2010 and 2011, it became the fastest-growing camera company in the world, capturing 70 percent of the wearable camera market and selling an estimated 800,000 cameras for a revenue of $250 million. The Hero cameras married exceptional video quality with a small form factor in a way that no one had ever seen before: CNET praised the HD Hero 2 for its "phenomenal wide-angle video" and "ridiculously durable" build, and Engadget raved about the original HD Hero, calling it a "piece of genius design… tiny enough to take all over the world, and cheap enough for you to be more bothered about losing the footage than the camera." GoPro used that momentum to scale up on the hardware side, establishing supply partners in China and even receiving a $200 million investment from Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn. The marketing shifted from focusing on just extreme sports to include videos of babies, dogs, and musicians. GoPro cameras didn’t just go anywhere, they were everywhere.
Today GoPro employs over 1,000 people with offices scattered between California, France, Texas, and Germany. Woodman is a billionaire, with whitened teeth and carefully coiffed hair. In person he is relaxed but measured, always careful to stay on-message, and always willing to pause mid-sentence to make sure he hasn’t erred. But it’s obvious he’s still the same prototypical Californian just under the surface: he can spend hours talking about the best surf spots, peppering his speech with "dude"s and "gnarley"s.
Woodman is clear-eyed on the fact that the hardware-first chapter of GoPro is coming to an end. Cameras will still be important, because Woodman believes that vertical integration gives GoPro an advantage over software-focused competitors. But when all is said and done, he thinks people will flock to the GoPro experience because it won’t just be the easiest way to shoot a video, but the best way to tell their stories. "GoPro has the opportunity to become the content-creation solution for everyone that’s interested in visual storytelling," he says. "Regardless of what camera they’re using."
A few days before last June’s GoPro Mountain Games, a three-day festival full of live music and athletic competition, GoPro invited a handful of journalists and company-sponsored athletes to Vail, Colorado. The company used the occasion to show off its newest camera, the Hero 4 Session, a full month ahead of its July announcement.
In front of a small crowd of athletes, employees, and journalists at the Mountain Standard restaurant, Woodman was fired up, acting like a hype man for his own product. "Can I get a hell yeah?" he yelled as he pulled the tiny cubed camera out of his pocket. He yelled the question again for good measure before he passed the Session around. "Pretty sick, huh?"
But later, as he tore through a leg of lamb at a table full of tech journalists, Woodman stopped cheerleading. He was proud of his cameras, but admitted that market saturation was creating a new problem. "It’s turning into content guilt," he said. "Most people don’t even watch their GoPro footage."
Woodman didn’t blame the users for that — rather, he said it was a problem that GoPro created. "We’ve sold a great promise to people but we haven’t followed through on it…. We solved the capture side of it, but then we sort of left them hanging with the whole hassle of the post-production."
Until 2011, GoPro essentially had no one in the company working on software. In fact, GoPro had been using contract manufacturers to handle what was a pretty light load, paying them to develop things like the firmware for the Hero cameras. The first time GoPro developed its own firmware was on Hero 3 Black, which Woodman admits was "not the most stable camera in the world."
The decision to build an entire software division came in 2013, but its foundation was laid in 2011 with GoPro’s acquisition of a company called CineForm. At the time, CineForm was popular in the filmmaking industry for one particular reason — in the early days of digital cinematography it was hard to get the video files to play nicely with different editing programs. CineForm created a piece of software that could quickly and easily convert digital video files between formats.
"We saw ourselves as this little startup that was fixing the mistakes of camera vendors," says David Newman, a CineForm co-founder.
Thanks to high-profile projects like Slumdog Millionaire, CineForm’s reputation grew quickly and the company turned its attention to another problem: the headache of dealing with 3D footage. Companies struggled to find software that could handle the careful synchronization, optimization, and compression required to process the video, Newman says, and GoPro was one of those companies.
CineForm was working on a tool that could handle GoPro’s 3D footage when the company’s popularity caught up to it, and the founders started receiving acquisition offers. Sensing an opportunity, GoPro swooped in, finalizing the deal in a matter of weeks. Because of GoPro’s relatively small size at the time, Newman says they hadn’t even thought to approach the camera maker. In fact, GoPro was small enough that a handful of people approached the CineForm team at a trade show at the time and asked if they had bought GoPro instead of the other way around.
Now a part of GoPro, CineForm took its 3D-footage tool and turned it into a full-blown editing program that eventually became GoPro Studio, the company’s first desktop application. In 2012, GoPro released its first mobile app, built by contractor Jeff Youel, a designer who had done a lot of work with CineForm. Its utility was limited — users could see a live view from the camera and change some settings, but that was it. Youel was eventually brought on full time and Woodman tasked him with building a dedicated mobile team. Over the next few years, the app slowly gained basic editing and social-sharing capabilities.
But it wasn’t enough. By 2014 and 2015, dozens of startups were offering better mobile editing experiences. With revenues booming, GoPro decided to swallow up some of that competition. Woodman and his executives scoured app stores on both iOS and Android looking for the best. Earlier this year, they settled on two: Replay and Splice.
Hunter Powell, the CEO of Splice — an app that promises desktop-level editing tools on your iPhone — says GoPro wasn’t even on his company’s radar when Nick Woodman came calling. "I was in the middle of fund raising, honestly… when GoPro reached out to me," he says. "It was like out of a storybook — I literally got an email one day saying they’d been using our product."
Stupeflix, the company behind Replay (editing software that was rebranded under GoPro as Quik) wasn’t such an easy target. Replay offered a feature GoPro customers were hungry for — it let users easily and automatically edit videos to the beat of a track with just a few taps. But Stupeflix had a higher profile: founder Jeff Boudier even demoed the Replay software onstage during Apple’s 2014 iPad Air 2 announcement event.
"Replay was very successful, it was profitable, we were really on a great trajectory. It took some convincing," says Boudier.
Woodman and GoPro’s senior vice president of software CJ Prober flew to Paris, where Stupeflix is headquartered, to pitch them on the partnership. "It just totally clicked," Boudier says now. "Our vision [is] to enable anyone to easily create beautiful videos. This is what GoPro is trying to do, we’re just tackling it from different ends of the consumer journey right? GoPro is starting with capture and we’re starting with editing."
Prober doesn’t mince words when you ask him what he’s been up to since he was hired in 2014. "What I’ve been doing over the past 22 months is building from scratch a world-class software organization," he explains. He helped GoPro pry the head of engineering of the software side of Amazon’s Fire TV, hire the former CTO of MobiTV (which builds apps for services like AT&T’s U-verse and T-Mobile TV), and product development employees from companies like Netflix and Yahoo.
Over the last five years, the company has had five other acquisitions, including Kolor, a French company that had spent years making software for capturing (and displaying) virtual reality. Since its acquisition at the beginning of 2015, the Kolor team has grown from 26 to more than 40, and earlier this year helped GoPro launch a virtual reality social media platform available in app form and on the web.
"We’ve been so successful only focusing on this one thing," Woodman says of the company’s hardware. "Imagine how successful we can be for our customers and then as a business if we focus on this other thing and complete the solution for people."
In May, I traveled to Carlsbad, California to see how all this change was playing out. From the outside, GoPro’s Southern California office is just as unassuming as the San Mateo headquarters. But inside the 175,000-square foot shared complex where GoPro is located, the scene is exactly what you’d expect: when I walked in, an employee was popping wheelies on a mountain bike just behind the front desk. The office has EV charging spaces in the parking lot, plenty of open-air space to work and eat, and outdoor surf showers. You can see the waves of the Pacific Ocean whitecapping from the roof deck.
I’d come to see the new software in action and participate in the company’s mandatory weekly team-building event, "Live it, Eat it, Love it" — a name that sounds less like a corporate initiative and more like the title of a new age self-help book.
"Live it, Eat it, Love it is our commitment to helping our employees live the brand that they’re building, and also respecting their need for personal time to pursue passions and things that keep them motivated and keep their chi boosted," Woodman says. Every Thursday from 1–3PM, employees are free to do, essentially, whatever. "Just make sure you capture it with a GoPro, and then come back and use our software tools to create and share content," Woodman says.
Think of it as Google’s famed "20 percent" time, with a hint of X Games: employees use the weekly gathering to rip through wooded trails on mountain bikes, tackle white water rapids, or — of course — go surfing. The week I’m there, the activity is indoor go-karting.
A dozen GoPro employees in total travel to K1 Speed, a go-kart track located a few miles further inland. The scene is one part team-building exercise, one part school field trip; on our arrival we’re handed boxed lunches and Gatorade. We talk about weekend activities; Newman is big car enthusiast, and has driven a number of times in the 24 Hours of Lemons. Eventually, we throw on helmets and take about a dozen practice laps. GoPro cameras are stuck on just about every surface we can find.
Between races, everyone digs furiously around in backpacks and boxes looking for mounts that will let them mix up their camera angles. Two members from GoPro’s vaunted media team show up with the 16-camera Odyssey VR rig and plunk it down in the middle of the race track. Newman pulls out the company’s new 6-camera Omni VR rig and follows suit.
Once the races are run and the trophies are handed out, Jeff Youel, who now runs GoPro’s mobile and desktop application operations, shows me a feature of the new app that the whole software team is the most proud of.
Everyone I talk to at GoPro tells me the company plans to replace its first-generation editing software, Studio, with the aptly named GoPro App for Desktop — released this past March. The app will eventually feature a new editing experience that the software team, for now, calls "Storyteller." In many ways it feels a lot like Quik, the "automatic editor" app that GoPro just launched on iOS and Android. In others, it looks a lot like iMovie.
As soon as Youel plugs in his cameras, the app pulls the footage immediately and displays it in the neatly designed media-management page. He highlights his favorites and clicks a tab, which moves him into Storyteller. There, he hovers his mouse over each clip, and — much like iMovie — a cursor appears and lets you quickly scrub through footage. Every time Youel finds a moment he likes, he clicks on it. Then you move on. Find another cool moment? Click, and move on. There’s no tedious trimming, or setting in and out points like there is in GoPro Studio. In fact, you won’t even have to learn what in and out points are anymore.
The selected moments drop into a timeline at the bottom of the app and when you’re ready, you pick a song, and the app matches the edits between each clip to the music. (Right now the plan is to launch storyteller with 10 free tracks, with the option to pay for more.) Every time you click on a moment, you’re giving the program a sort of starting point. This way, when the automatic editing takes over it knows what’s most important, but it can also use the surrounding footage as a buffer if it needs more time to match an edit to the beat.
Storyteller takes the simple experience offered by Quik and scales it up without making it intimidating. And it speaks to GoPro’s effort to push its software across all the platforms it touches. You can use the GoPro app to post a video right from your GoPro, you can hop into Quik and create something more stylish with just a few taps, and soon you’ll be able to do the same on your computer.
GoPro plans to support all this with a cloud-based ecosystem, one that all these apps — and therefore, all your devices — will plug into so that you’re never separated from your footage. The company won’t disclose how much access will cost when it’s released at the end of this year, but GoPro promises it will save you the headache of downloading and organizing all the files that you’ve shot. As Woodman puts it, "You’ll never have to touch an SD card or a USB again."
The question that the software team says they get the most — at trade shows, in stores, or out in the world — is, "How can I get my footage to look like the GoPro commercials?"
"People buy these camera on the promise that they can deliver videos like that," says Tim Bucklin, who was the first developer to work on GoPro studio and came over in the CineForm acquisition. "And the hardware is absolutely capable of doing that. But there’s always that gap. We’re not going to include film school with your camera." Storyteller offers the next best thing: an easy shortcut to make it look like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t.
It’s a work in progress though, so as Youel is showing this to me, there are a few bugs. He’s having trouble reordering clips on the timeline, and thumbnails for videos sometimes don’t show up. He also can’t do the nifty cursor scrub trick on the timeline.
The idea behind Live it, Eat it, Love it is exactly this — using the hardware like customers would, and identifying flaws in the software. Storyteller is still months out from rollout, but Youel says that when it sees the light of day that "it’s going to be a genius feature."
We can be the Switzerland of content creation," Woodman says back in San Mateo.
"It’s an incredible opportunity for the brand, and it’s a natural opportunity for the brand, because I think most people associate GoPro with great content… Why can’t GoPro be the content-creation solution for everyone, and we just open up our doors to say this brand is now relevant to you no matter who you are or what device you’re using?"
GoPro has spent more than a decade building up its brand as a hardware company, and it will be hard to translate its relevance to a new group of consumers, no matter how good its editing programs are. The company doesn’t have a clear way of monetizing a lot of the forthcoming software, at least none that Woodman or president Tony Bates would share. And whereas GoPro essentially created a market with its line of wearable action cameras, it’s entering crowded fields when it comes to building content-creation tools and platforms.
But GoPro is firmly set on this path, and Woodman believes that the company will be better off even if something like Storyteller doesn’t become the next big hit. The pivot to software will help the company gather feedback and improve their hardware as well. For instance, six months ago GoPro began collecting raw user data for the first time in order to get a sense of how customers use their hardware (more people are using GoPro cameras to take photos than the company had previously thought, for example, and they’re also shooting video at higher resolutions than just the 1080p standard).
Meanwhile, Newman’s team is working on an open standard for video metadata, a way to save information inside the .mp4 files so that — like how EXIF data works with photos — it will be retrievable at any point; and others are working on things like the ability to overlay sensor data on your footage, or making third-party devices pair and play nicely with GoPro cameras (a result of the company’s recent developer program launch).
What GoPro is now asking of its customers and investors is patience.
"[Building a software team] has required the most time of any new venture that we’ve taken on at the company, because it meant building an entirely new group, a new business within the business, and it is different," Woodman says. "But the good news is that because it’s not easy to do, the spoils go to those that figure it out."
And those spoils could be massive: the amount of video being consumed is steeply rising — more than 80 percent of smartphone users stream video, according to a recent report from NPD. GoPro already has strong footholds in the two biggest video platforms, Facebook and YouTube.
But young consumers are increasingly choosing smartphone cameras over traditional ones, meaning they’re probably less likely to ever buy a GoPro. Piper Jaffray analyst Erinn Murphy recently wrote that "while GoPro has gained share in a declining category, we note overall camcorder ownership declined to 28 percent among teens versus 31 percent last Spring. To put this into perspective, camcorder ownership was north of 40 percent in 2013."
All of which makes it critical for GoPro to unmarry its brand from its hardware as soon as possible. The company Woodman worked so hard to establish as a camera company now has to become something altogether different.
"It will take some time and some investment for people to realize oh, GoPro has something for me even if I don’t own one of their cameras," Woodman says. "But that’s something we’re really good at — that’s just marketing, communication, and building strong relationship with consumers, which is something that gets back to the strength of the brand," he adds.
For now, GoPro is still a healthy company, with a projected revenue of $1.35 billion in 2016 and a slate of exciting new hardware and software releases. But where will Woodman’s software pivot leave the camera maker in 5–10 years? "There are only a few companies in the world who are building out platform experiences like this," he says. He grins and throws his right thumb over his shoulder. "They’re based here in Silicon Valley, and they’re a heck of a lot bigger than we are."
Design and still-life photography by James Bareham
Edited by Michael Zelenko