Stab Magazine | Lessons From Surfing’s First Billionaire

Lessons From Surfing’s First Billionaire

Nick Woodman—on being a surfer in Silicon Valley, to creativity, social media, his unhealthy obsession with Wavestorms, and more.

style // Jan 7, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Nick Woodman is tanned, tall, clean­shaven with strong, warm cheeks and impressive skin for someone that lives deep within the daily pressure cooker of a publicly traded company. A salty head of hair gives him a touch more of rock and roll, rather than silicon valley look. In fact, there’s seemingly little Silicon Valley in the man, no smug nor patronizing tone, although, yes, he talks a lot. But it’s derived from legitimate passion and his brief, powerful journey to a top spot amongst the commercial elite.

On a warm North Bondi Thursday afternoon, we’re seated in the sun with Woodman while out front Europeans on big, colourful foamies, GoPros mounted firmly up front, paddle for pretty much every ripple they see. We drink beers instead of the scheduled surf (it’s pretty much flat; he’s gutted) and for the next 90 minutes we enjoyed a dose of creative energy from one of the most inspiring cultural figures we’ve encountered in the flesh.

Woodman has that energy and enthusiasm that often comes with big cash, but it’s a focused energy around his product. But more than giving a PR rally, the day Woodman came to hang with Stab, he very noticeably wanted to focus on surfing, which is to say it felt like he actually wanted to be there, with us, on that day, talking story about those stars we all steer by (waves) and which get most of us us out of bed in the morning…

And which, yes, have helped line the shit out of Woodman’s pockets.

There was a reason why, in 2004 Woodman released a new, foreign product, with no business background in the space, in a completely cluttered global industry, in one of the most advanced sectors in the market: he saw a problem, and he tried to fix it.

He went door-to-door, and did not give a flying fuck as to the risk, nor what competitors and other people thought.

$5k got him a prototype built, for a camera on which he would build a company which at the time of our conversation was valued at 1.5 billion dollars.

Actually, it all started right here, in Australia, on a surf trip with his friend, at waves he’d drooled over in magazines, and left with an idea which makes him three parts a billionaire. But timing ain’t everything in this story. His growth has come from challenging the status quo on every level.

While there were certainly things Nick Woodman was concerned with when we met—namely, GoPro seeing new technologies making headway at edging them out of the market they created— that wasn’t the intention of the meeting.

We just wanted to ask some questions and hear some stories. Because how many of us surfers become billionaires?


Here are some wise, gold bricks, from a man who has stacked them higher than anyone to ever set a foot to wax.

San Fran Grant ly2

“The waves you surf are just the cherry on top, the people you meet, the food you eat, the cloves you smell. That’s what makes the journey, and the surf is what draws you there.” (Photo: Grant Ly)

(A Slightly Cosmic Take) On Working At Something You Love:

“Find an environment where you feel turned on by your work, and it shows in your work. Surfing represents GoPro the best, that global perspective, that positivity and just the ability to show how amazing our world is.

“The dynamic element of surfing, and the natural wonders, are the best parallels to what GoPro does best. That cosmic energy from riding wavelengths, interacting in a changing way. The places that it takes you, the cultures that it exposes you to. That more vagabond vibe to surfing really fits Gopro’s Mantra. To live the most fulfilling life that you can. And Surfing provides us with an amazing opportunity to capture, and share that.

“The waves you surf are just the cherry on top, the people you meet, the food you eat, the cloves you smell. That’s what makes the journey, and the surf is what draws you there. Unless you’re fascinated be different cultures you wouldn’t get to these corners. Peaceful hunting. We get to go be lion hunters, but celebrate the place rather than decimate the place, and put a head on the wall.’’

On Being A Surfer In Silicon Valley:

“In Silicon valley where there’s two only sports: Road bikes and business.” [Nick only cares for the latter (for now).]

“On whether we should go surf, despite it looking terrible.

“We’ve got 8ft catch surfs, and we’ll go surf anything. I think we get through the interview, pound a few beers, and go get weird on foamies.”

On Missing Living On The Coast:

“It is an irony that HQ for GoPro isn’t in a groovier place, it’s about half hour south of San Francisco.

“I met my wife at UC San Diego, and we promised ourselves we’d never live away from the coast and we stayed true to that promise until about 3 months before we had our second baby. We lived in a really small farm town called Pescadero, kind of in the middle between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. It’s all protected lands, there’s no development, it’s all farm land that goes right up to the beach, so you’ll walk through a pumpkin field or an artichoke field to go surf. It’s all kind of bigger an unruly. It’s kind of the frontier. You’re stoked when you walk through the fields and there’s a couple of dudes out and think ‘sweet, I’m not the only one going surfing today.’

“We were living out there and running GoPro out of the 100 year old barn. It was epic. But my wife was pregnant with number two and we knew it was time to be closer to family.” 

On Silicon Valley’s Pressure Cooker Vibes, And Whether He’d Do It All Over Again There.

“I live 15 minutes from GoPro, so that’s super convenient, but like I said, there’s two sports where I live in town, road cycling and business.

“I went to UC San Diego, and I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I had no idea what business or what have you, but I thought it would probably be easier to get something going if I was close to home, where my network is, more support from my family. I was young and the fucking cold didn’t bother me (laughs). It just made sense, and now with how much the Bay Area has grown since Google and Apple and Facebook, all of these other companies, it’s like Los Angeles now. It’s so choked out and crowded.”

Death Of Surf Matt Obrien

Point! Shoot! You’re a photographer! Craig Anderson and a band of youth looking to store a memory in a handheld device. (Photo: Matt O’Brien)

On GoPro’s Presence In So Many Fringe Cultures—Rock Climbing, Skateboarding, Adventure, etc.

“Cultures like this have a lot of stimulus. Whether you surf or not, just the positive vibe of nature and energy, you pick it up from everybody, it’s pretty special”

On Getting His Kids Surfing

“For me, personally, there’s nothing cooler in the world than surfing with my kids. I’d rather surf junk with my kids, than surf empty draining barrels without them. It’s just more fulfilling to see the stoke in your child.

“Sunny Garcia gave me really good advice maybe 3 years ago, when my eldest was 4.

“I was starting to get hyped on pushing him into waves and I asked Sunny, ‘Dude, so how old are kids in Hawaii when they legitimately start surfing?’

“And he looked at me and goes ‘Ohhhh, I gotta have a talk with you’.

Sunny told me how he had pushed his kids, at too early an age, to surf and they pushed back. He approached things differently with his grandson, waiting for him to really show signs that he wanted to surf. Now the kid rips.   

“Where I live, it’s challenging, but in San Diego it’s like [Bondi]—the kids are all junior lifeguards and they’re all on it. Yeah so to get my three boys surfing at home, it’s hard, because they’re spoiled—they know what warm water’s like.

On GoPro’s Relationship To Surf

“For GoPro, I think surfing has always been the most important. Because it’s so authentic to GoPro, surfing is our birthplace and as a lifestyle and a sport it’s most representative of this idea that GoPro can be a platform for a global perspective and positivity and a celebration of how amazing our world is and how amazing our experiences are.

“Surfing just provides us with an amazing opportunity to capture and share images that inspire the rest of the world to go out and do cool shit, even if they don’t surf.”

On Looking Back On The Empire He Created, And The Lifestyle He Always Dreamed It Would Offer:

“You go through your whole life, only to realise once your 18 years old and in college, that being creative is awesome. I found visual arts and photography and was able to kind of get turned on enough in school that I realized, Ok, I think I want to be creative as a career, and I want to be able to surf after school every day with my kids as a goal.

“I’d never been happier surfing in college with my friends, and I thought what could possibly be better than surfing with my kids? And as we all graduated and went our separate ways I thought ‘oh shit this sucks, we’re all this band and now we’re disbanded, maybe the next thing is to have kids and surf with them and then I can have that tribe again’.

“I thought, well, If I’m going to surf with my kids after school on a regular basis, I’m probably going to have to own my own business, I’ll be an entrepreneur. So I’ll be creative enough to start a business and I can afford to surf with my kids after school. Ok that’s my goal. I’ll give myself to the age of 30 to succeed, because I’m probably going to fail along the way and I don’t wanna give up. I was 22 when I set the goal. Fast forward, and I’m 26, I’ve failed at two businesses and I’m unemployed and I have no idea what to do next.

“I realised that if an idea is going to come to me, I have to have some sort of stimulus or inspiration and the best form that I’ve ever experienced is when I’m on the road travelling, surfing. I’m a big believer that you have your best ideas, your most creative thinking when you’re pursuing your passions, because you’re most turned on, so I decided to take a surf trip.” 

Kelly fucking slater gopro

Kelly Fucking Slater, captured by Kelly Fucking Slater!

On Kelly Slater

“Remember the video we put out where he paddles in with it in his mouth, and you don’t know who it is, he drops in, going right, then takes it out and looks at it, and it says ‘Kelly Fucking Slater?!’

We debated over that—‘do we say “fucking“?’. ‘But it’s Kelly FUCKING SLATER!’

“We think of GoPro as a 30-year-old who is at that sweet spot in their life, like an accomplished 30-year-old who is into eclectic music, has a groovy bohemian style, is really open minded, friends with straights, squares, queers, super creatives—it’s like that person who has no judgement, who is like ‘as long as you’re positive in nature, let’s hang out’.

“It’s the person you’d go to to learn about cool music, or like ‘Hey man, I’m going to take a trip, where should I fucking go?’ You go to that person because they have no attitude, they’re just stoked.

“We ask ourselves, ‘what would that person do?’ And in the end, that person would say ‘Kelly fucking Slater!”

On The Now

“Our customers infuse our brand with so much authenticity and stoke that our main objective is not to screw up that good thing and momentum by getting in the way too much. So we just kinda look for ways to give them a little bump left or right or push them into the wave when they need it, but then they’re the ones that are ripping.”

“The more that the world expresses itself individually and not through traditional media the more we have a glimpse into what is really happening in the world.”

“So now the world just feels that much more… less lonely.”

On The Future

“Now it’s just celebrated to be creative and the feedback loop that you get socially, when you express yourself I hope is for the most part positive. There’s a darkside to social activity, there’s too many negative vibes, but for the most part it’s positive.

“I think people are going to continue to evolve as creatives and they’re going to seek new tools and look for more ways to express themselves and differentiate themselves, and that’s where GoPro’s opportunity is because we can offer this super versatile visual expression and story telling solution that goes way beyond a smart phone’s capabilities.”

“We now think of them as untethered lenses, where you can use them to capture really cool perspectives that all transfer over to your phone and then it’s that app experience that creates a video for you. The GoPro is just one embodiment of that lens. We’re working on other variations of the GoPro that can relate to different types of people and enable different types of use cases that people haven’t thought of yet, which can then expand the whole potential of GoPro and appeal of GoPro to more people.”

San Fran Grant Ly

“There’s too many relationship network nodes to maintain. That is not natural. That’s not the way our brains are engineered. It’s why we feel anxiety about our phones… being over-networked.” (Photo: Grant Ly)

On His Favourite Place To Surf

“I’d have to say Indonesia, but I haven’t been back in years. In a boat in the outer islands in Indonesia.”

Wave Storm Surfing

“I got so turned on by the Wave Storm. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t be caught dead riding a $99 surfboard from CostCo. It wasn’t until I took on the North Shore for a GoPro event and I paddled out Rocky Point, totally out of shape, on a 6’2”, because I couldn’t imagine myself surfing anything other than a shortboard. And I’m watching people get great waves and I’m just not in the mix. I’m out of shape and on the wrong equipment and the best surfer out there is just destroying it on this 8­foot foamy. And nobody’s giving him shit. And I didn’t know you could rip a board like that.

“So I went home to California, and bought a board and sure enough, the thing’s magic. I bought enough of them that I realised, ‘Shit, they’re not all the same—some of them have one rail design, a different tail, some have different flex patterns. I realized, some of these are good, the rest are absolute shit.

“Then it dawned on me: maybe the people that own Wave Storm don’t even surf, and they don’t know that some factories make one shape, and others make another shape… And what if they move everything to another factory, and ditch the factory that makes the really good one? So I panicked, that I might not be able to buy my magic board anymore.

“So I had my assistant contact Wave Storm, to find out if I could buy a bunch of them in bulk. She comes back in my office and says, ‘Oh my god, they’re discontinuing the board you like!’

“And I’m like ‘I fucken knew it!’

“But she said they would fire up the factory again, if I ordered a container load. There are a 144 in a small container and 230 in a big container,’ she said.

“So I bought a big container load of Wave Storms. I’ve got them in my barn.

“Once you get over yourself, and you’re not trying to be someone you’re just not going to be, you can shred in life. It took me a while to accept the fact that I was doing some of the best surfing of my life on an 8­-foot­ soft­top. That doesn’t make any sense but I was having more fun than ever.”

On Social Media.

“I don’t have a social profile that I maintain. I made that decision years ago.

“When I was getting started in business, I saw so many CEOs embarrass themselves on Twitter. My wife maintains a family Instagram feed, and GoPro maintains a branded Instagram feed. GoPro can speak for GoPro. I don’t want to compete with GoPro, and the fewer people that know what I look like the better.

“The world cares more about GoPro than me, thank god.”


“If you’re psyched on being super social, then that’s awesome and empowering as long as it makes you happy. But I think that everyone also finds a lot of satisfaction from being able to revisit personal experiences and keep them personal. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a trend kinda come back that way, because it’s entirely positive, too.”

“I do worry about my kids—they’re 7,5,3—and I remember how neurotic a time high school was, let alone today’s high school with a social media profile and getting hated on and having to maintain this persona.

“The anxiety I get, just from my phone—with texts and emails and voicemails and feeling like I have a responsibility to reply…

“I’m over-networked. I think we all are. There’s too many relationship network nodes to maintain. That is not natural. That’s not the way our brains are engineered. It’s why we feel anxiety about our phones… being over-networked.

“Then, you layer on top the fact that you’ve created a digital Self that, needs to be good looking, funny, witty, creative, and generally interesting, with every post that you make—I do think that can be dangerous for adolescent minds who get too caught up in it all.

“I think we’re all addicted to it now.

“But like most things, I think that’s going to evolve. I hope. Because frankly you shouldn’t spend that much time thinking about yourself.

“That’s a little hypocritical being in my position at GoPro. But the thing is, for me, I’ve got a feed on the GoPro app, and it’s all the Quickstories that I’ve created with my GoPro and I choose who to share those with on a small circle basis. This isn’t for anyone else. This is my feed of my favourite experiences.

“If you’re psyched on being super social, then that’s awesome and empowering as long as it makes you happy. But I think that everyone also finds a lot of satisfaction from being able to revisit personal experiences and keep them personal. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a trend kinda come back that way, because it’s entirely positive, too.”

“Ultimately, if GoPro can help people remember and appreciate their lives more, be it socially or privately, then we’ve done our job.”


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