10 Years of Bootstrapping an Overnight Success
There are videos that are so visceral—the skydiver free falling from 10,000 feet or the surfer shredding through the pipe—that your own heart begins to pound in your ears as you watch. The perspective from which these moments are captured allows the viewer to live or relive the experience again and again. These adventurous feats are filmed using tiny, wearable, high-quality cameras that have gained exposure—particularly because of the rising popularity of video-sharing websites such as YouTube. Leading the charge is CEO Nick Woodman who bootstrapped his camera company GoPro for nearly 10 years before seemingly becoming an overnight success. The company, which makes a series of 2-inch-by-3-inch wearable, durable, waterproof and HD cameras, has some 3.5 million fans on Facebook and celebrity endorsements from pro athletes and filmmakers. Inc. reporter Maeghan Ouimet spoke with Woodman about GoPro’s journey as a bootstrapped business and how he’s handled its massive growth spurt.
What are the pros and cons of bootstrapping a business?
I think a challenge is obviously that you don’t have all the resources that you would have if you went out and got an investment. Maybe you can’t grow as quickly as you’d like to, but an advantage is that you only have yourself to answer to. You can style your business and your approach exactly the way you want to. You don’t have the pressure of outside investors that you’re beholden to who want to weigh in on how you’re building your business. I think that’s really important and beneficial to a business in its early stages. Bootstrapping allows you total creative freedom. For example, if you decide to approach your business in a certain way that makes it a two or three year process to get to your first product, you can do that, versus being rushed into it by investors.
How has bootstrapping caused your business to evolve?
People think that GoPro is an overnight success, but really its been a ten year slog to get to this point and while at the time maybe I wished that I’d had more money than I did, I see it as really advantageous now because we took a long time to learn our markets and learn our customers. We took a very slow, but steady approach that has benefited us. If we had received money to do what we wanted to do early on, I think we would have burned through it trying to figure out what this business could really be. I don’t think we would have necessarily been given the time to slowly and thoughtfully build GoPro into what it is today.
Recently, you’ve accepted outside investments in response to your rapid growth. How have you handled that?
That’s been terrific for GoPro. Because we bootstrapped it, GoPro has been profitable since the beginning—modestly, at first, but now it’s a very healthy business. We didn’t need the money. We decided that what we needed was more experience. We wanted to bring more experienced people into the company and build out a more experienced board of directors that could help the company network and help us with strategy. We realized that one of the best ways to do that was to bring on some investors that have terrific networks and experience and could help us scale the business. Because we didn’t need the investment money we were able to go raise the money from people that we wanted to work with and with favorable terms versus being under the gun to raise money and maybe forced to take money from people that wouldn’t be as good of a fit for the business. That was a strategic decision that’s worked extremely well for GoPro because we love our investors and they’ve been very helpful to us.
Your success can be largely attributed to your customers—a veritable guerrilla marketing team. Was it your plan to get your customers to become the voice of the brand and, essentially, the marketing arm of GoPro?
It definitely happened organically. I originally started GoPro with the soul purpose of helping surfers capture photos of themselves and their friends while they were surfing. I thought it was crazy that very few surfers had any photos or videos of themselves. None of us knew what we looked like during our favorite sport. The same can be said for any human activity. It’s very difficult to get any footage of yourself doing what you love unless you have a friend who’s a photographer or videographer and wants to document you. That was really the idea and the goal from the beginning: to help people get a good photo and then it was to help people get a good video.
How has social media influenced your marketing tactics?
We didn’t have the idea initially that there could be a big guerrilla marketing or social component to GoPro because online social networks didn’t exist yet. I started GoPro in 2002, we came out with our first product—the original Hero Camera (a 35mm film camera)—in 2004. YouTube didn’t really start to hit its stride until 2006. It wasn’t until the spring of 2007 that our customers became interested in video. So before 2007, we didn’t have this notion that people would capture and share footage that could virally grow GroPro through guerrilla word-of-mouth marketing. YouTube changed all of that. Suddenly people wanted to capture and share video. We realized that if we enabled people to capture really engaging, exciting footage doing what they love and we enabled them to do it with professional quality, then a GroPro would be something they would use regularly to create content. It was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time, of being a camera developer at a time when social networks took off. We had very lucky timing and have benefited massively from it.
What keeps your customers loyal?
I think our slow, humble beginnings in surf shops, ski shops, bike shops, and motorcycle shops have been extremely important for our success. GoPro is all about celebrating an active lifestyle and sharing that with other people. It’s authentic. It’s not a brand that we went out and bought a bunch of ads for to create. This has been grown over ten years from very grassroots beginnings. Our customers are so passionate—they’re growing GoPro. Somebody captures an incredible video, shares it online, and inspires millions of other people to go and do the same with their GoPros and then it happens again and again—and what you’ve got is this incredible snowball of stoked customers capturing and creating rad content with their GoPros. The only question is: Does that end? I don’t think it does because the world is filled with people that are passionate about something.
Want to learn more bootstrapping secrets from Nick Woodman? Join him and other seasoned entrepreneurs on October 3 in Phoenix for our Inc. 500|5000 conference. Visit conference.inc.com for more details.