GoPro, the Half Moon Bay-based camera company that’s etched out a very big niche for itself in action sports, just unveiled its latest line-up of Hero cameras.
The company, which just turned 10 years old last week, has come a long way from its very lowly beginnings making camera straps for surfers. They’ve sold 3 million cameras since late 2009, when the company had about a dozen employees (virtually all of whom were either related to or went to high school with GoPro’s founder Nick Woodman).
“We started out helping surfers share their love of the ocean,” said Woodman, a surfer who studied visual arts and is pictured below. “Now we’re the fastest growing camera company globally. What we’ve found is that the world is really full of all of these passionate people who want to capture and share their experiences.”
To give you an idea of what it can shoot, here’s a video the company filmed entirely with Hero3 cameras (and yes, it is completely captivating).
So what’s new? The top model, the HERO3 Black Edition, is 30 percent smaller and 25 percent lighter than the HERO2 with a $399.99 price tag. Its image processor is twice as fast, and the camera can capture 4k video at 15 frames per second, 2.7k video at 30 frames per second.
It’s three times as fast at photo capture and can do up to 12 megapixels for still photos with burst shots of 30 frames per second. “It’s actually almost too fast,” Woodman said.
Wi-fi is now built into every GoPro from the top-end model on all the way to the HERO3 “White Edition,” which Woodman says to basically think of as a souped up HERO1. There’s a middle-range offering, called the “Silver Edition”, which is basically like a HERO2 plus Wi-fi.
They also improved on sound recording with this version. “It could handle motor sports with reduced noise, but we’ll admit that the HERO2 came up a little short when it came to capturing your latest guitar jam or people’s voices,” Woodman said.
They company has also upgraded all of its companion software on smartphones and tablets. GoPro’s apps can control the cameras, and preview and share content on the web.
Instead of cannibalizing the company’s core business as smartphones have with Kodak and other venerable camera brands, smartphones have actually helped GoPro, Woodman argues. He says that now that consumers don’t have to spend money on a basic point-and-shoot, they can consider alternatives that really have something special to offer.
“[The smartphone] is our friend,” he said. “People are no longer buying traditional cameras because they’re looking for differentiated ways of capturing their life experiences proactively instead than reactively with their phones. These guys have actually helped us clear the landscape from a competitive point of view, freeing people’s minds and dollars to capture their active lifestyles.”
However, Woodman doesn’t want the company to stay confined to surfing, race car driving or base jumping. He sees GoPro as a way for people to share passionate, life experiences. To wit, he even showed footage of the birth of his son to room full of press in announcing the HERO3 tonight. Plus, the GoPro footage he’s most proud of at the moment is not of heli-skiing. It’s a video that captures his infant son’s facial expressions while on a bike with Woodman for the very first time.
GoPro is actually Woodman’s third company after the last one, a web marketing company, flamed out in the original dot-com bust. After going on a half-year, round-the-world recovery trip involving lots of surfing, he became determined to find an effective way to film himself out in the ocean. It started with camera straps, but then Woodman soon realized he would need to get into actually building cameras.
After finding a trustworthy supplier in China, a real inflection point came for the company when it switched from film to digital. Many seismic, industry-changing shifts have coincidentally helped GoPro along the way. Woodman jokes that the company has slipped on a “banana peel of luck” countless times.
The emergence of YouTube and Facebook helped GoPro find a passionate community of supporters without needing to pay for mainstream marketing until later. Before they ever showed up in Best Buy stores, GoPro already had scores of dedicated surfing and racing customers. Footage like this video of some skiiers escaping an avalanche or this NSFW video of hula hoopers at Burning Man have attracted millions of views and fans.
“We’re the 10-year overnight success,” Woodman said. That momentum is now attracting rival products from hardware makers like JVC and Sony. But the thing is that the vast majority of GoPro’s actual sales are through smaller, action sports-oriented retailers, which would require a network of relationships and the kind of brand loyalty that’s hard for a giant, lumbering hardware maker to copy.
Still, to protect itself against much bigger competitors, GoPro did raise a venture round of undisclosed size last year. Disney’s Steamboat Ventures, Riverwood Capital, Sageview Capital, Walden International and US Venture Partners participated.