Jet-setting with GoPro founder Nick Woodman, surfing's first billionaire
We sat down to dinner and celebrity CNN anchor Anderson Cooper was describing the time he flew out to Ohio to see a woman about her cult of hyper-conscious bonobo apes, and about the incredibly nasty things that one of them did to a purple beach ball that Cooper brought as a gift. The apes then communicated it was their desire that the 46-year-old former war correspondent dress in a pink, furry bunny outfit for their amusement and pleasure. And so Cooper did. As the images of the violated beach ball and the man in the costume were sinking into the minds of the dinner guests, in walked Joe Francis, infamous creator of the Girls Gone Wild video franchise. He was trailed by his model girlfriend, who wore an insignificant bikini covered by a light wrap. A glass of white wine sashayed in her slender fingers. Francis was sweating. She posed. Cooper stood, seemingly, before he was pulled to his feet. The 20 or so dinner guests hushed. Francis said that he lived next door and that it was his desire that the party’s host, GoPro founder Nick Woodman, and Cooper walk over to view the 14-bedroom mansion built on the largess of his soft-core porn empire. So they did.
The guests who were honored to, and engaged in, dining with Woodman, Cooper, and the 60 Minutes crew, watched them turn to leave the room.
I remembered a warning GoPro employee Justin Wilkenfeld offered just days before, “This shit’s about to get weird here any second.”
The second he spoke of had arrived.
I’d been writing a piece about the historic contributions surfers have made to point-of-view photography. And I’d been putting a lot of thought into this new world of incessant documentation that we are all living through. I found it an interesting notion that the icon of sunbaked mindlessness—the surfer—had made such a dent in the technological history of capturing images. But there it was, sparked by the fact that Tom Blake—inventor of the surfboard fin—purchased a camera from Duke Kahanamoku—father of modern surfing—and built the very first water housing so he wouldn’t damage the medium-format Graflex when taking pictures in the Waikiki lineup. That invention allowed ocean explorers like Jacques Cousteau to beam images of the previously unseen deep blue world into millions of living rooms. The concept of the housing exists in a technological lineage that allowed for the capture of man’s first steps on the moon (a camera NASA commissioned from Westinghouse for the Apollo missions employed a very familiar housing). Equally, as George Greenough disassembled his Kodak K-100 to reconfigure the machine into a smaller unit able to fit on his back as he zipped through tube-time, he joined surfers to the history of technological miniaturization.
In effect, we were in the gravitational pull of Moore’s Law. This academic observation posits that the evolution of computing exists on a trajectory of ever smaller, faster stronger, cheaper—a rate of development that doubles every two years. The idea also applies to things like the size of pixels in digital photography, etc.
It came as a mild surprise when Woodman suggested, in a rather casual manner, “Hey, I’m going to buy a jet. How would you like to go on a surf trip?” Being a regular surfer, I said, “Yes, I like surf trips.”
All of which pointed me in the direction of the camera company GoPro and its inventor, Nick Woodman, also a surfer. Woodman is tall and lanky, and holds his body like a guy who studied at the University of California at San Diego and surfed Blacks Beach a lot—which he is. What he didn’t look like was a billionaire with a good shot at transforming the way everybody makes, stores, and publishes moving images. As we talked at the end of August 2012, however, he was already on his way. GoPro’s HD Hero 3 would soon become the highest-selling camera in the world, precisely because it was smaller, stronger, faster and cheaper. And a couple of months from our first meeting, the company Foxconn, famous as a maker of Apple products in China, bought into GoPro to the tune of $200 million. According to the financial magazine Forbes, the percentage Foxconn purchased immediately valued GoPro at $2.25 billion. This allegedly left the portion of GoPro that Woodman still owned at $1.3 billion. That is—for the math challenged among us—one thousand million plus three hundred million more. Have you ever played the mental game: What would I do with a $1 million? Try that 1,300 times.
This was something I couldn’t know at the time. So it came as a mild surprise when Woodman suggested, in a rather casual manner, “Hey, I’m going to buy a jet. How would you like to go on a surf trip?”
Being a regular surfer, I said, “Yes, I like surf trips.” And, I thought, that was the beginning and end of a fun, momentary illusion. I never for a minute imagined that the proposed trip would go down, and still, I was genuinely honored to be invited.
Saying yes to a surf trip was the last normal thing that would happen.
I was soon told that the jet, a Gulfstream 5, could fly from California to Paris without refueling. “So start thinking of a place to go,” said GoPro’s PR man, Rick Loughery. “Woodman likes lefts.”
It turns out that when your options are anywhere, choosing becomes a bit harder. I know what you and your buddies would do. You would look at the swell charts, you’d pick a reasonable swell and a reasonable place in which to catch it, and you’d go. That’s not what billionaires do. Billionaires have people. And their people have people. Billionaires have schedules that don’t adhere to swell, wind, and weather. Billionaire people are big people, and the conditions bend to them.
This decision-making process snowballed into almost exactly a year of suggestions—Indonesia, the South Pacific, Central America, etc. It was an entertaining intellectual exercise, something like fantasy football for surf travelers. Then Rick mentioned that 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater might come along. And there was some talk of hitting a Rolling Stones concert in London before jetting down to the Indian Ocean. And then I was told that the news program 60 Minutes would be doing a segment on Woodman, and that anchor Anderson Cooper would meet up with us at some point. This limited our options, of course. With dual crises in Egypt and Syria, Cooper might have to cut out at any time. Indonesia was ruled out as being too far away from the studios where crises are broadcasted to couch potatoes. And with the loss of the Indonesia option, well, I was disappointed—but not in the least bit miffed, because I still believed that a surf trip aboard a Gulfstream 5 was an utter delusion. I just thought that if we were going to dream, we should dream about Indonesia.
The following August, I’d been planning a nice weekend of surfing a crappy beachbreak and picking fleas off of my dog when I got word that the GoPro trip was on. And this unexpected event caused some concern. A “junket” is a trip that corporations, lobbyists and interested parties organize for journalists in order to “educate” the media and to broker some personal time with the gatekeepers to the masses. Junkets are generally frowned upon by serious journalists as undue influence—as the buying of an opinion. Serious journalists don’t go on junkets. So I had to decide if I wanted to be serious or if I wanted to see what it was like to roll with, possibly, the richest surfer in the world.
Now, some of you common people might not know that there is a separate runway for private jets at LAX. And that if you’re a passenger on one, you aren’t physically violated by a TSA agent upon entry. In fact, I didn’t see any TSA agents and I never passed through a metal detector. I simply wafted by the free coffee stand on my way out to the Gulfstream, where the pilot greeted the group with hearty handshakes. I noticed that the luggage handlers weren’t kicking the board bags as they normally do. And I realized this kind of travel is more about the things that don’t happen to you. You don’t incur penalties while rebooking (over the year, our changing travel plans would have incurred about $25,000 in fees). You don’t get assigned a seat, you aren’t commanded to click your belt, you don’t grind elbows with your fat neighbor.
But then there are the subtle and profound things you do get to do. You do get to choose your food and drink from the choice range available on Earth, for example. After takeoff, Woodman told a little anecdote about how he became aware of the possibilities available to him. This occurred on his very first trip aboard the G5. He’d popped down to Chicama, Peru, with some friends and surfed that long left until the swell waned. On departure, it dawned on him that his new surf-mobile could outrun the swell he had just surfed. He considered following the swell to the Galapagos Islands, or somewhere in Central America. Woodman said, “I realized that a surf trip on a jet can be like a road trip. If you see a road you want to turn down, you can just go there.”
A bit later Woodman revealed something else he could do: he could order the pilot to expose us to incredible G-forces by banking at high speed. Suddenly the people in the cabin experienced the artificially heavy environment one feels in the presence of extreme wealth. I was able to sit behind the pilot, and I asked him how far he could push this gravitational multiplier. “Well,” he said, “until the wings fall off.”
It may be important to note that the serial number on the jet’s tail fin was N74VW , and this memorialized the 1974 Volkswagen bus called “Biscuit” that Woodman relied on during the founding of GoPro. He took the bus to trade shows. He slept in it. So many successful tech companies started in garages that it is now a marketing cliché to tell your garage story. Well, the VW was GoPro’s garage. The original was stolen and never reclaimed. But now its spirit lives at altitude aboard the G5. I realized this when the stewardess opened a side table cabinet, one like you’d find on a VW bus, and inside I glimpsed Woodman’s kids’ toys. His kids keep their spare toys on their jet. The illusion that this was a rental vanished.
The GoPro story has been told many times, and always in the frame of the “local boy done good” trope—the young man’s inspiration, the long hours of toil, the character-testing failures, and then, on the slimmest chance, a breakthrough. But on a surf safari with Woodman and his crew, it was easy to see that the idea of a surf trip is the proper lens with which to view their tale.
Woodman graduated with a visual arts degree just in time to meet the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. The Bay area native jumped into the fray himself with a venture called Funbug—an online gaming site. Yet, when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Woodman’s enterprise went down with millions of investor money. The 27-year-old found himself unexpectedly ousted from his first career. He now had time to wander, time to think, and maybe even a new vision to hatch. This is when he linked up with his old college friend Ruben Ducheyne. In his mid-20s, Ducheyne was working as an insurance underwriter in San Francisco. The situation sounds very grounded, but Ducheyne suffered a world-class travel bug. It had forced him from college and any other full-time commitment. That underwriting gig, in fact, was the only job he’d held for as long as a year. “The only way I got through it was knowing that at the end of the year I’d be quitting and heading for Australia,” he said.
Australia was going to be an awesome trip, and Woodman wanted to capture it in a novel way. The traditional water housings and pro cameras, he thought, were too big and bulky. So he took the strap from a Bully’s leash and fashioned in into a wrist-mount that would hold a disposable waterproof Kodak film camera.
Woodman and Ducheyne timed their traipse around the island continent with perfection, and scored waves just about everywhere they went. This gave Woodman a lot of opportunity to toy with the wrist mount. He famously, and profitably, discovered the surfer’s selfish tic—that surfers didn’t want to take pictures of other surfers, they wanted to take pictures of themselves. It was Ducheyne who preferred to surf, and think about surfing, rather than the camera. “The prototype was just kind of thrown together and always falling apart. Nick would get mad at me, but I didn’t want to deal with it. So Nick persevered. I ended up getting a lot of shots.”
In fact, Ducheyne said one of his favorite parts of the trip was when they would stop in some town to have the film developed and sift through the photos over lunch.
On a later trip to Indonesia, Woodman met Brad Schmidt on an inter-island ferry. Schmidt had studied film and was roughing through some the world’s richest surfing grounds. The pair of Americans hit it off and traveled to One Palm Point where they shared lifetime sessions. Schmidt was introduced to the wrist mount, and being mechanically inclined, he experimented with the prototype. Woodman expressed his desire to create a company to produce such a gadget. Schmidt remembers laughing, and telling Woodman, “Go ahead man, that wrist strap thing is really going to take off.”
This allegedly left the portion of GoPro that Woodman still owned at $1.3 billion. That is—for the math challenged among us—one thousand million plus three hundred million more. Have you ever played the mental game: What would I do with a $1 million? Try that 1,300 times.
On returning from his travels, Woodman made two intuitive and critical leaps. He realized that a wrist strap alone wasn’t going to cut it in the marketplace; he needed control of the whole system. So he searched for and found a camera manufacturer, Hotax, that could work with his specifications. He also designed mounts that allowed the surfer to capture images of him or herself. GoPro made money from the start. And within a couple of years Woodman tapped Ducheyne and Schmidt to take positions at the “wrist strap” company. Schmidt was working aboard a yacht in the Caribbean. Ducheyne was wondering, “Should I go back to Indo? Or, should I help my friend in the Northwest build his tree house?”
Both took positions. Ducheyne, the mad traveler, didn’t take so much as a vacation for two years. He ran the tech support out of his apartment all week long, and on weekends he shipped returns out to customers. Today he is the company’s marketing manager. Schmidt, the guy who laughed at the wrist strap, became a master at turning short clips into poetic visual experiences involving swimming sirens, blue and humpback whales, charging lions, and swooping vultures.
The old travel partners claim that the unimagined growth of GoPro has only helped them go deeper into what they were already doing, helped push their passions further.
We didn’t make the Stones concert in London (though they did use GoPros on stage). Slater wasn’t able to make the trip. And we didn’t nearly max out the Gulfstream’s range, traveling only to Mexico. But in the lineup together, the three hooted and slapped high-fives. They bumped fists like teenagers at a rave. They were stone-cold sober yet high as kites. Every possible configuration of GoPro captured every angle. This trip was a junket and photo-op, but it was also a celebration. The sense of being among a group of young men who only recently realized that they were soon to be millionaires, was palpable. It was a score, the kind you might find on the surf trip of a lifetime.
The 60 Minutes crew shadowed the GoPro group’s every moment, and supposedly, Anderson Cooper was still going to join us at some point. CBS cameraman Chris Albert rented a high-end water housing for his expensive camera and drowned the whole outfit as soon as he put it in water. The boys took pity, and loaned him a GoPro. We were also joined by scientists from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, who arrived to tag the mysterious 2000-pound manta rays that swam just off shore here. A world-renown Argentine deep-sea diver appeared to help recon the adventure. And two large vessels were hired for a surf outing that required a long boat trip. Spirits were high. Cameras were everywhere.
The base camp for this operation was an opulent and spacious beachside chateau that was fully staffed and boasted a private chef, so we boarded the vessels in the Mexican predawn well fed and well groomed. We motored for a number of hours to a remote pointbreak, and arrived to see it come alive with a new swell. The giddy surfers jumped into the ocean and the camera crew took a dinghy to shore to set up. The surfers stared at the horizon, waited, and then slid down the line, and paddled back out. The camera crew baked on the beach. After some time you could almost feel the journalists’—the highest caliber war and foreign correspondents—comprehend that this was the reality of surfing. The question rising to their lips was almost visible: “You mean they just do this over and over and over again?” The surfers were thinking, “Man, we get to do this over and over and over again!”
As the surf trip continued, the scientists, professionals, and mere enthusiasts began to peel away. The surfers only became stinky and sweatier—living in layers of grease and sunscreen on their faces, salt stiffening their hair. People slept where they fell. There were no showers, and no grooming. In this atmosphere, Woodman was not the billionaire inventor, he was a surf-obsessed and tequila-soaked Spanish speaker who enjoyed a good yarn. Rations were running out. No one cared. All were becoming pirates. The fact that the GoPro staff had learned this way of living aboard Indonesian ferries and fishing boats was fully apparent.
For two days Cooper failed to show. We figured there must have been a crisis in Syria, or another world event that required attention—which was fine, because we just wanted to surf. But then we ran out of fresh water, which put a distinct limit on the campaign, and soon we were heading back to civilization. Only minutes into the journey we spotted a fishing vessel heading our way. We could see Cooper’s white head under the captain’s awning. The boats drew alongside and his crew boarded. They quickly began to apply microphones to the pirates. One informed me that my shirt was inside out. It was a technique I preferred when wearing the same T-shirt for several days. But I realized this might become an embarrassment on camera. I became concerned about the motley collection we made.
This is when Cooper, referring to the strong sunshine, mentioned that he’d recently had a pre-cancerous spot removed from his face. The scab left in its place looked like a big zit. Later, President Obama’s people would unexpectedly contacted Cooper’s and requested an immediate interview. Cooper would fly to Hawaii to meet the president. During the interview, as they sat facing each other, Cooper would see that for long stretches the president’s gaze was focused squarely on the abnormally large blemish astride the anchor’s nose.
It would be comforting. If the president could gawk at Cooper’s zit, the American public could view ours.
Before leaving, Cooper dropped the billion-dollar question on Woodman: “So what are you doing out here?” Cooper had flown to a foreign nation and endured a three-hour boat ride to nowhere. “Are you just surfing?”
Woodman hesitated. Was it okay for a billionaire inventor to just surf?
“Uh, and product testing,” he replied.
As a group, we haven’t made it that far yet.
“You have to put your mind in the machine,” said Brad Schmidt. “If you can put your mind in there, you’re good.”
We stood on the lawn of the chateau. Brad had mounted a GoPro to a $400 remote-controlled drone via a stabilizing gimbal. He flew the machine out over the ocean and, as we watched on a detached screen, the camera tracked a couple of grommets surfing the shore pound. The image on sunset was sweeping. Albert, the CBS cameraman, mentioned that in the past this shot would have required hiring a helicopter and pilot, a one-time, $5,000 shoot.
Woodman was being interviewed on the beach. Local luminaries made their way onto the lawn. I learned that the Kardashians owned a vacation home just a house away, and that they’d invited Woodman over for cocktails. It was a scene out of The Great Gatsby, where revelers caroused in the gardens of mansions adjacent mansions. As the sun set, guests sat for dinner at a number of tables in the plein-air living room. Cooper, who admittedly enjoyed fantastic insect and animal stories, began his tale about the bonobos, and Francis crashed the party. He’d recently run afoul of the law and suffered financial setbacks. His Bel Air mansion was being foreclosed on. One could assume that Francis wanted to sell the 14-bedroom beach bungalow to Woodman.
As they left, I wondered if we were about to lose Woodman—the only real, self-made billionaire surfer—to the celebrity glow of the jet-set crowd. But then, Francis hollered back, we were all invited to his pad—the 60 Minutes staff, the print journalists, the GoPro employees, the scientists, deep-sea divers, and the kitchen staff—all of us.
I don’t know where real surfers, or surfing as a sport, is headed, but it has definitely been invited to the party.