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Featured Outlaw: Nicholas Woodman

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Q&A with the founder of GoPro

By Joseph T. O’Connor

By simply doing what he loves, Nick Woodman is inspiring a generation. The seismic success of his 2002 invention – a wrist-mounted, waterproof, action sports camera he called GoPro – has changed the face of popular culture, allowing everyone from pro skydivers to amateur gardeners capture point-of-view footage.

Woodman’s product has evolved into a wearable, high-definition, Wi-Fi camera that’s relatively affordable, and the 38-year-old native of Atherton, California, is now worth more than $1 billion. In February, his company made headlines when it filed initial paperwork to become a publicly traded company.

But being a hero wasn’t that simple.

In 2001, after a failed attempt to build a gaming service startup, Woodman regrouped on a three-month surfing tour in Indonesia and Australia. Wanting to document these adventures, he and Jill – his girlfriend at the time, now his wife – returned to the States with a plan.

“One of the most difficult things in the beginning was fully committing myself to my vision,” Woodman said. “You can’t be easily deterred. You have to be willing to stay the course.”

He built a 35-millimeter film prototype and wrist strap with a drill and his mom’s sewing machine, and then raised some of the company’s early capital by selling Indonesian shell and bead belts from his VW bus on California’s Highway 1. At his desk working on designs, Woodman wore a CamelBak so he wouldn’t waste time refilling glasses of water.

GoPro leapt into the international spotlight in 2004, when a Japanese company bought 100 models at a San Diego trade show. Sales have doubled every year since.

In 2013, Woodman, along with Jill and their two boys (they recently added a third), Nick head shot 2bought a house in the Yellowstone Club, near Big Sky, Montana. Although he’s on snow at least 20 days a year, he says after a visit last summer he’s not sure which Montana season he loves most.

Mountain Outlaw caught up with Woodman this spring and discussed his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, snowboarding versus skiing, and how an eagle showed him the best GoPro footage he’s ever seen.


MOUNTAIN OUTLAW: How do you define success?

NICK WOODMAN: Achieving fulfillment in your life. It’s not about the money, it’s not about achievements. It’s about waking up every day happy.

M.O.: Were the first few years developing GoPro difficult?

N.W.: Oh, yeah. It was scary. It was scary, exciting, difficult, exhilarating. You have all of these dreams about what can be, and there can be quite a gap between where you stand dreaming and the other side, where you’ve actually realized your visions. [For] all those entrepreneurs feeling self-doubt and insecurity – we all feel that way when we’re starting out. It’s natural. Acknowledge that it’s just part of being human, shut that part of your brain off, and get to work realizing your dreams.

M.O.: What was the most important step in bringing GoPro to fruition?

N.W.: First and foremost, believing in myself. My sister gave me really good advice. She said, “Take a Post-it note and write on it, ‘I am doing this.’ Stick it on the bedside table, so the first thing you see every day is your message to yourself.” And it worked. I started every day saying out loud, “I am doing this.”

M.O.: Who inspires you?

N.W.: I’m inspired by my kids. In the early days, I was building GoPro cameras and accessories for myself, my friends and our customers to capture ourselves getting radical… Now I’m really inspired by experiences I’m having with my family. I’m [also] massively inspired by our customers. The experiences they’re capturing and sharing with their GoPros is blowing my mind. I’m seeing human experiences, human passions, and learning about inspired people around the world.

M.O.: What brought you to Montana?

N.W.: The snow! I first came to Big Sky in 1996, when I was [studying visual arts at]… U.C. San Diego and I road-tripped out with three buddies. We drove out for a few days, stayed at Buck’s T-4, and snowboarded our brains out. We loved it so much that we came back the next year. That was like an 18-19-hour drive, but the skiing was so good.

M.O.: So, you bought a place at the Yellowstone Club?

N.W.: Yeah. We bought it last year.

M.O.: How often are you there?

N.W.: I try to get out as much as possible, but it’s tough because work is so busy. I got five or six trips last winter. This winter was a challenge because we just had a baby boy, but I still made it out [a few] times. We were out for the Fourth of July last summer and caught the Beach Boys. That was awesome until it thunderstormed on us, but even that was awesome.

M.O.: Are you a risk taker?

N.W.: I think you’ve got to be as an entrepreneur. But here’s the thing: It’s not as riskyNick_Surfing_HERO3 as most people think when you’re passionate and well informed… You have to be willing to fail. And you have to be willing to fail again and again and again until you get it right.

M.O.: How often do you snowboard?

N.W.: Every time I go to Montana. Last year before we had [our third] kid, I probably got 20 days in. I was a skier from 4 years old until about 13, and I switched over completely to snowboarding. Since I’ve been coming to Montana, the skiing is so phenomenal – call me 50/50, snowboarder and skier.

M.O.: What’s the best run at Yellowstone Club?

N.W.: Oh, man. I’m going to tell you the truth: It’s the backside of Big Sky – Liberty Bowl. That’s the best run, and I’m looking at it all day from the Yellowstone Club.

M.O.: What’s the best GoPro footage you’ve seen?

N.W.: Footage [from] a camera mounted on the back of an eagle flying through the French Alps. I watched it with my sons and they were completely mesmerized and blown away by the fact that we were riding on the back of an eagle through the mountains. That was my favorite and proudest moment watching GoPro footage.

M.O.: What are you going to do when video isn’t cool anymore?

N.W.: I think I’ll be long gone by the time that happens.

This story was first published in the summer 2014 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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