Extreme exposure: Inside GoPro's burgeoning media empire

A sun-pinked face stares down the barrel of a surfboard-mounted camera. Mountain biker, Sam Pilgrim, is gently floating in crystal-clear water. Behind him, a backdrop of cotton-wool clouds and bright blue sky. This idyllic setting could describe any number of surf videos shot with GoPro's rugged action camera, but this one is different. Pilgrim gazes up from his board, then impulsively, inexplicably bails into the ocean. Almost in the same moment, an outrigger canoe bursts into shot over the camera -- right where Pilgrim would have been had his reactions been a millisecond slower. Pilgrim is a pro athlete, but surfing's not his sport. The moment is genuine, but the circumstances that make it possible are planned. This close shave took place at GoPro's recent Athlete Summit in Hawaii, and it's videos exactly like this that the company is hoping will transform it from camera maker to media outlet, as it files for its IPO.

GoPro's business is action cameras, those small, silver cubes that adorn helmets, surfboards and, these days, pretty much anything. It's a market the company dominates. GoPro's cameras are responsible for a great number of YouTube's most thrilling content, with an estimated 6,000 uploads originating from its devices every day. It sold just shy of 4 million GoPros last year, a number up from 2.3 million in 2012, and 1.1 million in 2011. But the cameras are catching up to the limits of what's currently possible or practical for a consumer product; its top model already records at 4K, albeit only at 15 frames per second. As a result, many have asked where the company can go from here. It doesn't help that the cameras it makes are built to be almost indestructible, and therefore non-disposable. This, then, is a pivotal time for GoPro. It must continue to expand and convince potential investors there's still room for growth.

GoPro's solution starts with shipping a load of the athletes it sponsors out to Hawaii. Not where most business reinventions begin perhaps, but the company has big plans. It realizes it's sitting on a content golden goose. Content it can monetize. Content it has to do very little to obtain. Content that's already doing big things online. GoPro tells us it's the top-ranking brand channel on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Adrenaline is apparently big business.

Because of this, GoPro's making the conscious and, perhaps, natural leap from selling cameras and accessories to content creation, curation and delivery. As for the athletes? They're here in Hawaii to learn how to crank up the share factor on their videos and grab the tools to make even more content for the brand. It's creating a virtuous circle where its cameras shoot the content that it then monetizes on various channels. Content encourages camera sales and, in turn, a new wave of content creators.

The day before our quick-witted surfer's lucky escape, Paul Crandell, VP of marketing at GoPro, stands on a small stage in a hotel conference room. He's addressing the large group of around 100 skateboarders, skydivers, skiers, surfers and bike riders before him. Among them are 14 world champions and six Olympic medalists (including gold winners like US snowboarder Jamie Anderson). At any other summit, it'd be briefcases and brogues, but here, it's board shorts and baseball caps. It's about as far from corporate as a corporate event could get, but it's definitely all about business.

Crandell is telling the group GoPro wants to grow with them. "It's about getting that content off the device and out into the world," he explains. The more pressing goal, however, is to turn the athletes into an army of viral video creators, through a number of boot camp training sessions. Nothing will be left to chance. Everything from setting up the shot, to editing the footage, to what clothes to wear and what time to publish content will be covered. It turns out that a good, spontaneous moment requires quite a lot of planning.

A few days after this summit ended, GoPro filed its S-1 IPO, revealing to potential investors the company's performance in hard numbers for the very first time. It's fair to assume the timing of these two events isn't entirely coincidental. Investors will want to know how GoPro plans to keep growing, and it'll likely be pointing those that ask directly to the summit in Hawaii.

For those that don't already know, the world of GoPro content is one of stunts, adrenaline-soaked activities and what could be called the "super-selfie" -- like regular selfies, but with more sharks, free-falling, mountain views and goggle tans. At the conference, Crandell sums up GoPro with a video from another professional mountain biker: Kelly McGarry's heart-stopping backflip over a 72-foot canyon (above). McGarry's video ends, and Crandell simply exclaims "Over 18 million [views]!" The audience ripples with whoops and cheers in appreciation. McGarry, casually sits four rows back from the stage, visibly humble and clearly just stoked he got the shot.

"This is GoPro's next product: a lifestyle, not a camera."

We've all seen videos like these, and while it might just seem like a sharable lunchtime internet distraction, it's actually a business opportunity ripe for exploitation. GoPro sponsors a good number of individual athletes from across the board of actions sports. Some of the big names, like pro surfer Kelly Slater and snowboarder Shaun White, act as brand ambassadors, but there are many more who can make their living from their sponsorship deal with GoPro. It's these individuals that the company tells us have already created 388 YouTube videos, achieving more than 50 million views each. Numbers like these can reportedly earn the creators (or, rather its YouTube publisher) six-figure sums. It's little wonder GoPro is keen to create more of them.

Videos like McGarry's backflip contain something we all want a little more of -- adventure, excitement and, perhaps surprisingly, a satisfying story arc. This is GoPro's next product: a lifestyle, not a camera. The more candid moments like Pilgrim's close shave, on the other hand, have the "gotta see this" factor. This new strain of media has become impossible to ignore in the shit-you-gotta-see world of online video.

"The big push has really been to become a media company," Brad Schmidt, creative director for the firm, says when he takes over from Crandell at the morning's presentation. Not entirely shocking news. But this is the first time we've heard the company be so open about it. Schmidt explains that for about the last year and a half, GoPro has been actively observing other media companies. For example, Red Bull doesn't just make short videos for sharing on social media; it also has a whole arm of its business dedicated to rich content production. Red Bull doesn't sell cameras, though, and its programs are expensive, pre-planned projects, more in line with the "old" TV production model. This is where GoPro's simple advantage becomes obvious: It only needs to distribute its own product -- a $400 camera -- and the content comes to it.

This difference in approaches is no better illustrated than with Red Bull's Felix Baumgartner space dive. Red Bull may have done all the hard work, but it used GoPro's cameras to record Baumgartner's first-person view of the descent. The whole project reportedly cost the drink maker around $65 million. GoPro used its involvement in the stunt for its own Super Bowl advert -- cheekily (but legitimately) piggybacking on Red Bull's years of work by simple association. In fact, if you Google "Felix Baumgartner," it actually predicts you're going to type "GoPro," not "Red Bull" next. It's this low-cost, nimble association with so many cool things that allows it to constantly feed Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and (most importantly) our imaginations. Red Bull, with all its slick production, on the other hand, isn't even in YouTube's top 10 brand channels, where GoPro is number one. As TV follows in the footsteps of other media mainstays (magazines, music, etc.) and moves further online, it's platforms like YouTube that will be increasingly important. It's a level playing field where media titans and have-a-go heroes can compete side by side for viewers' attention.

After the presentations, the real work of the event begins, and it's no less symbiotic than everything else GoPro does. A busy two days of action-packed fun awaits the army of camera-clutching athletes. It's a rare chance to see White surfing, while Ryan Sheckler stand-up paddleboards and Anderson swaps snow for sand and sea. Watching them engage in their activities with verve, it's easy to see how they could become the new sporting icons for the super-selfie generation. The symbiotic part? After all the activities, the athletes are ushered into training sessions and shown how to convert the content captured into the most sharable video or photo possible. The summit might be about giving something back to the athletes, but its long-term yield for GoPro shouldn't be underestimated.

Outside the training room, a pair of TVs behind a GoPro-branded desk displays a fictional hybrid social network -- something between Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube. Over the two days, it displays photos and videos shot by the attendees along with their own personal "engagement" factor. The displays rarely spend any time without at least a small group of people gathered in front of them, checking and admiring the competition. It turns out there are also prizes on offer for the best shots. GoPro isn't about to launch a social network as far as we know, but it's yet another indication of just how compelling its content is -- even those who are living it and doing it can't take their eyes off of it.

The camera maker's first foray into media production arguably started in a similar vein to this homemade social page -- republishing and content curation. It's been handpicking user-submitted videos and promoting them on its own channels for a long time. It has, of course, also commissioned and made its own original productions -- and blown out some of those clips into full-length versions. But, for the most part, these user-submitted videos, the pro athlete footage and official promo reels have been easily distinguishable from each other -- but maybe not for long.

"A legion of athletes is a powerful thing, but compared to the content created by the public, it's just a tiny speck in terms of potential."

While hardly unique to GoPro, there's a growing trend of videos with spurious origins. In many cases, these are well-produced, authentic-looking edits. Just as the camera maker might produce. If these videos find their way into the firm's channels, it could spend some of that hard-earned brand equity.

A legion of athletes is a powerful thing, but compared to the content created by the public, it's just a tiny speck in terms of potential. It's no surprise that GoPro's taken notice of this rich well of resources. It started with the company creating templates in its "Studio" video-editing software. The templates let you create a video using one of the firm's own creations as a guide. Drop clips into the empty sections, and your video will match the music cadence, making for really simple "pro-looking" cuts. The next tool for those that aren't quite on the official GoPro team is a forthcoming tutorial book.

When GoPro launched its own branded channel as part of Virgin America's in-flight entertainment some months ago, it may have seemed like a good, but largely unremarkable partnership. Since then, however, that channel has spilled over to two of the most popular gaming consoles, and you can bet it's already in negotiations with other platforms and services. This represents the third part of the full media empire trifecta. From camera to content to distribution channel, GoPro has laid the foundations for an end-to-end lifestyle video machine. All of this innately promotes the sale of more cameras, which in turn means more content, and more to show on your channel.

Is it all sunshine and surf trips for the brand? Audiences love the authentic videos, and are fine with the scripted stuff, especially when it's something just downright cool. But as other brands have learned (remember those fake bloggers that proliferated in the mid-2000s?), audiences are happy to do contrived to a point, but if they start to get a whiff of too much fakery, they'll soon bail out. For now, though, it seems the action-packed videos aren't taking anyone for a ride, other than the one downhill in Aspen.

As the summit winds down, one athlete tells me that his sport is so small (Ski-BASE, a derivative of the already niche BASE jumping) that there's no way he could make a living from it without his relationship with GoPro. He's eternally grateful to be there in Hawaii, and for him, being able to make killer videos that might in some way help his sponsor isn't work at all; it's the purest fun and the very best thanks he can offer. It's this sentiment that seems to be a real force for GoPro. A shareable video clip is one thing, but its strongest asset is how the brand makes people feel. For now, as GoPro gets ready to go public, all it needs to do is shepherd that brand cachet, and be sure not to squander it. If it does, it'll need Sam Pilgrim-like reflexes to pull it back again.

Daniel Orren and Edgar Alvarez contributed to this report.