Nick Woodman: the crazy billionaire brains behind GoPro

He’s the highest-paid CEO in the world, but even today Nick Woodman remains a natural thrill-seeker.

Peter Iantorno April 29, 2015

It's a blisteringly hot day at the famous Laguna Seca race track in Monterey, US. The air is heavy with the smell of petrol fumes, the high-pitched screams of a fleet of Formula 1000 race cars tearing around the track is deafeningly loud and the cars are barely more than flashes of colour as they scorch their way past the pit lane.

On the track, the onboard camera of the fourth-placed car captures a daring double overtake, as the fearless driver positions himself in the slipstream of the car in front before a left-hand turn, waiting until the last possible moment before hitting the breaks, darting through on the inside and passing two cars on the way through.

He's quickly back on the power to make the overtake stick, and as the speedometer ticks over 100mph, he breaks out into a celebratory finger dance, keeping hold of the steering wheel with only his left hand and using his right hand to express his delight at the overtake.

Who is this maverick driver with such confidence that he can overtake two cars at once and then take the time to celebrate with more arrogance than Lauda and Senna combined? Why, it's Nick Woodman, the billionaire CEO of GoPro, of course. And his extreme racing manoeuvre is actually part of an advert for the GoPro Hero (above). Nick Woodman car racing

OK, we're going to level with you: maybe our description of Woodman's epic overtaking technique was slightly hyperbolic, and we can kind of see that the cars in front of him might not have been driving quite at 100 per cent - after all, if the boss is coming up behind and wants to overtake you, you've got to let him, right?

However, the fact remains that the man who is now the most highly paid CEO in the world, with an annual salary of $285 million and a net worth of $2.5 billion, was the star of his own company's extreme advert with not a stunt double in sight. This may sound pretty insane, but for anyone who knows anything about the crazy life of Nick Woodman, this maverick act of free-spiritedness won't come at all as a surprise.

Woodman's journey to success was not without its bumps along the way. A passionate surfer, he attended the University of California, San Diego, simply because it was close to the beach, so he could go out surfing before and after his classes. Nick Woodman surfing After meeting his future wife, Jill, and graduating college, he managed to raise $4 million of investment to launch his own start-up gaming/marketing company, FunBug, which revolved around its users playing games and filling out surveys in order to win points, which could then be transferred into money. The idea was sketchy at best, and when the dot-com stock bubble burst in the early 2000s, the company was sent crashing down with it.

In the months after FunBug failed, a dejected Woodman planned a five-month surfing trip around Australia and Indonesia, where he hoped he would find some inspiration for his next venture. He was 26 at the time, and while he was intent of bouncing back and trying again, he was a realist, so he gave himself until the age of 30 to succeed in his own business, before he'd pack it in and get a normal job.

While on his surfing trip of a lifetime, Woodman was looking for a way to document his experience, and he found himself tinkering with the wrist strap on his surfboard so he could attach a waterproof camera to it. Looking back at the great shots he'd managed to capture and recalling how he was hardly impeded at all by the presence of the camera, Woodman suddenly realised - maybe he was on to something. Nick Woodman surfing. Woodman returned home, carrying a large backpack full of shell and bead belts that he'd bought for less than $2 each in Bali but thought would be worth a lot more in the US. He was right, and he sold his haul for $60 a piece to raise some initial capital to get GoPro started. Granted, once he'd built an initial prototype and promoted the product at a few trade shows, he did accept a $235,000 investment from his parents, but he was determined not to go down the same route that ultimately lost $4 million of other peoples' money on FunBug - an experience which had a profound effect on him - so he made a promise to himself that any further capital would be raised purely by the company itself.

Driven on by his initial failure, the first year of GoPro saw the young entrepreneur very much putting in the hard yards, travelling up and down the country and even appearing on home shopping network television in an attempt to raise the profile of the company and sell the product. And Woodman's hard work clearly paid off, as by 2004, the company's first year of being fully operational, it turned a profit of close to $350,000.

Over the next decade, Woodman continually pushed the envelope of innovation, introducing HD cameras, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectability and even the ability to connect two or more recorders to create 3D video. The marketing has been nothing short of astounding, with GoPro managing to find its way into some the world's biggest ever events - including Felix Baumgartner's famous Red Bull Stratos skydive, which was filmed using GoPro. The company has gone on to become a major player in the tech world, with its cameras ubiquitous not only among extreme sportsmen but nowadays increasingly marketed towards families to document everyday life, from a day at the beach to a dog fetching a stick - perhaps a sign of Woodman's growing maturity now he's happily married with two children to think about.

Much like its eccentric head, GoPro is a volatile company, and although since it went public in June 2014 stocks have traded at an average 44 per cent higher than their opening price, having dropped more than 50 per cent from their all-time high of $98.47 after Apple was granted a patent for a potential GoPro rival camera earlier this year, the stock prices have more peaks and troughs than the surf Woodman so famously enjoys.

What will the future hold for GoPro? Nobody can definitively say, but that's par for the course for Woodman. He's a man who is unfazed by the biggest waves, fastest cars and most dangerous slopes - and he's certainly not the type to be afraid of a little competition. Nick Woodman skier