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GoPro’s Woes Stem From One Simple Mistake

Would the company be in this position today–angry investors, and looking into a company sale–if it hadn’t gone public in 2014?

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BY Tom Foster - 10 Jan 2018

GoPro's Woes Stem From One Simple Mistake

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

"One of the big lessons" of the past few years, embattled GoPro founder and CEO Nick Woodman told me a few months ago, "is that when things are going really well, you can be lured into thinking that everything's easier than it is. Because you're doing a really good job, you think you must be smart and good at this stuff. So, why can't we go do this other thing? The reality is that you can't expect your experience in your core business to translate. Just because you're a World Series-winning pitcher doesn't mean you can go play quarterback."

He was discussing GoPro's attempt to create a media business (which, in theory, would further stoke camera sales) after its wildly successful 2014 IPO, an adventure that proved a disastrous distraction that took many millions of dollars--and too much of executives' attention--away from the core business. But he might as well have been referring to something more fundamental at GoPro: its status as a public company. Just because GoPro was a rocketship startup with a single line of highly successful cameras did not mean that it was ready to be a public company.

On Monday, GoPro announced that it would discontinue its problem-plagued drone division, lay off some 250 employees, and reduce Woodman's cash compensation to $1. (The layoffs come after a two recent rounds of major staff cuts--the last one came in March 2017--that in sum cut around 500 jobs, or around 25% of the company.) Perhaps most alarming, it said its fourth quarter 2017 sales would come in about $130 million short of guidance--or around 28 percent shy of the goal.

Devastating results on their own, but even more so when taken in context. The once high-flying company had just notched three promising quarters of sustained growth, after two years of botched product launches--an overpriced new mini-camera, drones that fell from the sky, waterproof cameras that leaked--and disappointing sales. I spent several days with Woodman and other GoPro executives last fall, and they argued that they'd learned their lessons. The company would now focus on its core camera business and be more conservative with its growth targets and product launches.

"We used to try to hit home runs every year," Woodman said then. "We would rather hit singles, doubles, and triples consistently."

A mature sensibility, in theory. But the hard reality is that most people who want a GoPro already have one, and the product updates aren't revolutionary enough to demand that they upgrade frequently--especially when a GoPro goes for $500. What's more, thanks to GoPro's success, action cameras are now essentially a commodity. GoPro is still the marquee brand in the category, but it faces much more competition than it used to. Its brand power has eroded, given its recent stumbles. And camera phones are better than ever, obviating the need for an action cam for many consumers.

What does any of that have to do with being a publicly traded company?

One reason for a company like GoPro to go public is to raise the kind of money that could allow it to build adjacent businesses and pursue growth--something GoPro clearly needed to do as its novelty faded. But a company that's only ever one product--no matter how revolutionary or successful--likely doesn't have the skills to flawlessly start inventing and building others, especially while Wall Street's quarterly shot clock keeps the pressure high to do it right away. To extend Woodman's own analogy, GoPro wasn't just a great baseball pitcher trying to play quarterback; it was a pitcher trying to play quarterback in the NFL playoffs, without practice.

Had GoPro stayed private and taken a more conservative approach back in 2014--developing a suite of high-end cameras for professional filmmakers, say, rather than pursuing a mass media business--it might have risked being squashed by a bigger tech company, or forced to sell itself.

But that's exactly where the company finds itself today. A few hours after GoPro's disastrous announcement on Monday, the company revealed that it is working with JP Morgan Chase to evaluate the possibility of selling the company. For a founder who embodies his brand as much as Woodman does, going public was a way to stay independent and keep the company's fate in his hands.

But the market had other ideas--as it often does.

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