GoPro's line of action cams have resulted in some of the most explosively viral first-person videos of the past couple years. Yesterday, the video camera maker confidentially filed with the SEC for an initial public offering, signaling that GoPro is thinking about base jumping right into Wall Street.
It's an intriguing move. What makes the GoPro IPO so notable is that the company essentially has just one product: the Hero 3+, a sturdy waterproof HD video camera with great battery life that is tiny and light enough to mount to pretty much anything: a surfboard, an eagle, a guy freefalling from outer space, you name it. Yet on the back of that tiny little camera, GoPro is hoping to build big things. The key strategy? Clever design backed up by tons of marketing oomph.
Although GoPro's cameras might be small, the business is booming. When GoPro raised $200 million from Foxconn in December, 2012, the camera company was valued at $2.5 billion. Camera sales have more than doubled every year since the company sold its first camera in 2004. In 2012, GoPro sold 2.3 million cameras and grossed $521 million; it is believed that that number doubled again in 2013. Market research firm IDC calls GoPro "the fastest-growing camera company in the world."
But GoPro wants to do more than sell cameras. As the The New York Times recently pointed out, GoPro ultimately wants to leverage the viral power of the videos shot on its cameras to become an "adrenaline-soaked" media company, a la Red Bull. These are lofty ambitions for a company that owes most of its success to what is, at its very core, a very simple product: a tiny, self-sufficient camera without a viewfinder. But that's the genius of the GoPro model, reflected in the very name of the company's most popular camera and backed up by a massive of marketing push. The camera is a hero.
Cameras, by their very nature, are designed to be self-negating observers, to sit by the sideline and watch adventures unfold, but without ever explicitly taking part. With the Hero, GoPro has created a camera with agency. Minus a viewfinder, it's a camera that would be next-to-useless photographing a base jump, a skydive, or a scuba dive, except by actually strapping it to a base jumper, a scuba diver, or a skydiver. That's what gives GoPro's camera so much personality. It's not a passive observer. It's an adventurer, and that, in turn, makes the people who watch the first-person films that come out of the Hero want to be adventurers themselves. In this sense, GoPro exploits one of the Internet's favorite pastimes: living vicariously through much more interesting people.
GoPro isn't the world's first or only action cam. But it does seem to understand how to pull the levers of the Internet in a way competitors do not. Visit its YouTube channel, which has 1.6 million subscribers, and you'll find a BMX rider backflipping over a 72-foot-wide canyon; a zookeeper hugging lions in Africa; and a firefighter rescuing a kitten--all Internet manna. That the camera's perspective puts you, the lowly viewer idling away at home in front of a computer, in the shoes of each hero, creates a sense of aspiration. (Whether people who watch GoPro's videos then go out and buy the camera is a question for GoPro's market research team. But with an IPO expected to be valued at well over $2.5 billion, it seems the company is doing something right.)
GoPro might do adventure cams now better than anyone. Technology, though, is not going to stand still. In the next few years, competing cameras as well as wearable headsets like Google Glass are going to start horning-in on GoPro's market. May the company with the best kitten rescue win.