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Woodman Sees Power In Storytelling

Las Vegas — Nicholas Woodman, GoPro founder, put storytelling at the center of the magic that produces millions of infectious user-generated video shorts from loyal users every year and has propelled his company to a $9 billion status.

“The day that people stop sharing stories, we’ve got a problem, but I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon,” Woodman told an audience of government and industry leaders during the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) Leaders In Technology Dinner Wednesday night.

Although GoPro has evolved into a giant media company feeding off of the consumer-generated viral videos collected by its diminutive action video cameras, Woodman told interviewer Alan Murray, editor of Fortune Magazine, that was never his original intention.

“I started GoPro in 2002 with the idea to make a wrist camera to help surfers shoot photographs of one another while they are surfing. It was meant to be a small family business where I could take surf trips as R&D trips.”

When testing the first HD GoPro in 2009, he said he looked at the footage and “I felt as though I was in a Discovery Channel television show. It just looked unbelievable … I called in my wife, Jill — my girlfriend at the time — and said, ‘They are going to film television and movies with this thing.’ ”

Woodman acknowledged that transitioning GoPro from a hardware-only manufacturer into a media company has helped crack the commoditization dilemma that typically follows any hugely successful consumer electronics product.

“People don’t buy stuff. They buy solutions,” he said. “If you just sell somebody a thing, you are going to have some problems selling them something in the future. People don’t use things. They use devices that solve something for them. We help people self-document, self-capture their lives in a way that was not possible before.”

Woodman said much of GoPro’s power comes from the strength of its brand, and when new products are introduced, its customers pay attention.

“But the brand gets its reputation by solving certain problems, and just because you have a strong brand doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want,” he said. “GoPro is very much known for enabling incredible content — engaging, eye-popping, wow content is what GoPro became famous for. … That’s made it easy for GoPro to transition from what it is now — a hardware company — into a hardware- cum-entertainment media company.”

He said the brand gets its power from the millions of viral videos that are created and posted online every year using GoPro in the title or tags. Last year, 6,000 uploads a day were titled GoPro, he said.

“You are only seeing people brand GoPro videos because that is what the brand is known for — great content,” he said.

Woodman said it is a very difficult thing for another company known for other things to come in and introduce a wearable camera to compete with GoPro “because that is the only thing our brand is known for. So when you come over here and try to pee on our playing field, it’s a little challenging.”

Where other competitors have started adapting their tiny video cameras to other uses such as home security, facial-recognition systems, etc., GoPro remains focused on storytelling, Woodman said.

“Every single human on Earth has passions and interests, and it’s arguable that every single person on Earth would like to see themselves engaged in enjoying their passions and interests, and you shouldn’t have to have another human being holding a camera filming you for that to happen,” said Woodman.

The GoPro Channel, which is now appearing online, on Virgin Atlantic Airlines and on other platforms, is comprised largely of videos that are consumer generated and not professionally produced. “And it’s only 2015. … Look at the incredible quality of the content we are seeing,” he added.

After showing a user-generated video of a grandmother tending her garden shot using a drone, Woodman teased the audience about reports in the press of a pending GoPro drone in the works. He asked the audience if they would like to see one and answered: “We are not going to comment on any possible new products that we may or may not make. It’s far more interesting for this to be all just one big mystery,” he said. “We can milk this for the next five years and never come out with a drone and get a ton of mileage out of it. The truth is, we love the drone industry because it obviously helps sell a lot of cameras. The reason people are flying drones is not because they enjoy flying. It’s because of the promise of the incredible content they can capture from a drone plus a GoPro.”

As he has shaken up the consumer electronic marketing paradigm using social networking and GoPro viral videos, Woodman predicted GoPro will help to shake up the content creation industry by flooding the market with thousands of high-quality consumer-generated videos that blur the lines of between professional and amateur-created productions.

Similarly, Woodman said he looked favorably on virtual-reality technology and immersive 360-degree camera productions.

“I don’t know about [GoPro making] a move into it, but I will say that similar to the drone industry, there are natural points of convergence with GoPro and virtual reality. One of the things that have made GoPro so successful is the incredibly immersive content that we enable — content that makes one feel that they are experiencing that event. We call it experience transfer. What better platform to take that to the next level than virtual reality? When you take multiple GoPros and create a spherical capture experience, it gets absolutely mind altering.”

Woodman also hinted at GoPro’s intention to impact the future of professional sports programming by asking: “Wouldn’t you like to watch [a game] from the athlete’s perspective? During every live sport I think there is a terrific second- or third-screen opportunity watching the main feed. Why can’t I go to my player’s perspective on my phone or my tablet and get a different version of the game?”

Woodman said GoPro is in development “of some new stuff” with one of the major leagues, and I think you are going to see something pretty cool here soon,” declining to give further details.

Running a company that has pumped his personal worth to $3 billion, Woodman offered other executives some advice: “Storytelling is everything. If you can tell a story and get other people to believe in that story collectively, you can do anything,” he said.