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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve seen the rise and rise of the GoPro camera. They’ve recently filed for a confidential IPO in the USA, and their most recent funding round had the company valued at $2.3 billion. I’m sure you know how awesome the cameras are at capturing extreme HD footage in extreme conditions. What most people don’t know is how they got to where they are today, and how they bootstrapped their way to invent an entire submarket with sub par, behind the curve, nowhere near leading edge technology.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Let’s start with why Go Pro cameras exist in the first instance. To do this one thing:

To make cameras which could capture footage of people doing extreme activities without breaking.

But it even goes deeper than that. The founder Nick Woodman originally didn’t have the intention to even make cameras. He simply wanted a solution to ‘his’ problem – which was finding a way to capture footage of his own surfing. He thought he’d be able to do this by simply creating a wrist strap which could be used with existing cameras. But once he got deeper into the funnel of development, he realized that there really wasn’t a reasonably priced camera which could take the extreme pounding and capture the images. So he went out and developed his own.

Serve the need – then iterate

The first iteration of the GoPro camera was in real terms a mile behind the technological development of cameras at the time. In fact the first version of the camera Nick launched wasn’t even digital – it took Kodak 35m film and this was in 2005! Yes you read that correctly – film. Can you imagine the pitch to investors in Silicon Valley about the film camera he was launching – he would have been laughed out of every VC office on Sand Hill road.
Here’s some other things the first few iterations of GoPro didn’t have – at a time when we were deep into the digital camera and smart phone era:

  • First version (2005) was not digital – it needed film.
  • The first digital version (2006) only took 10 second bursts of video
  • The first digital version had no audio capability and only had 3 megapixels when even smart phones have better resolution.
  • To this day, none come standard with digital view finders or zoom and many other standard digital camera features.

In fact, the list of what GoPro cameras didn’t do was extremely long. But what it could do, was what no other camera could. And that is get the footage, survive extreme conditions and be mounted and affixed to capture the crazy activities people get up to.

Yet, GoPro has continued to iterate their technology and are bridging the capability gap – all the while maintaining the purity of their purpose.

What can we learn?

There are some massive insights here for anyone wanting to startup up in the hardware space. Clear things which bootstrapping entrepreneurs can take heed from. So I’ve listed some of the key lessons from the Nick Woodman playbook below to get you all psyched up to go make that ‘piece of hardware’ you want – and the world probably does too:

  • Nick invented a product he wanted. Something which solved his own problem. The world is a big place and chances are there are others who do what you do, who need what you need. In a long tail world, we can use our digital connections to spread our idea to others who share our interests.
  • He focused on utility more than technology. The utility was what drove the development process and consumer output – not what technology the camera industry was using.
  • It was not a startup founded by a techie. He didn’t have any expertise in the field. But he did know what he wanted. He was the end user. In a world where the factors of production are available to all, knowing what you want to make is more important than knowing how to make it.
  • He didn’t own any of the factors of production, he just organized them. He outsourced the build process. Today we are lucky the supply chain has been opened up to anyone. There are no barriers now.
  • We can (and should) sacrifice features in our category of choice, so long as we totally nail the new benefit.
  • He started with only $35,000 of capital. At a time when things cost more than they do now. A tiny amount for hardware development.
  • Niche markets (Surf photography is as niche as it gets) can become mass markets. We should start in a tiny niche and over service it. The growth opportunities will reveal themselves if we do well in our community.
  • He had a classic viral loop built into the product. Users were taking footage of themselves. They then of course shared their content on line and within their community. It was well built for social media facilitation (the digital versions of course).
  • He iterated, the technology and added features, but never at the expense of the core utility.

The GoPro story is both revealing and inspiring. More proof that we can do bootstrap into almost any category – even high tech hardware.

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