StrategyChat Recap: Partnerships in Unlikely Places

This post by Rob Kleiman originally appeared on LinkedIn.

On December 1, StrategyHack, a New York-based organization that helps companies uncover breakthrough strategies and develop new ways of execution through facilitating startup-thinking workshops, hosted its last StrategyChat of 2015. The evening featured two influential minds that are constantly innovating: Sam Olstein Global Director of Innovation at GE (General Electric) & James Cooper Head of Creative at betaworks.

Each speaker, a technologist in his own right, offered thoughts regarding innovation and reflections on how the future will take shape. As for the name "StrategyChat," the event format takes a different approach in presenting expert opinions to an audience. The event structure does away with panel moderation and promotes organic discussion as the vehicle for information flow. The question of the evening was about partnerships: How are effective and innovative partnerships cultivated and curated?

Betaworks is a cutting-edge startup studio that makes useful products through combining art and science. From bitly to Giphy, and Poncho to Dots, betaworks is known for producing some cutting edge startups and widely adopted tools for consumers. GE is, of course, General Electric, an industrial giant that is pushing the envelope through innovation by opening new marketing channels and discovering new markets. But, what brings these two organizations together?

Better together

Through a meeting between the management of the two companies, an unlikely partnership emerged. Together GE and Dots, an addicting puzzle based mobile game designed by betaworks, partnered on creating and adding a feature to the app called Gravity Mode. This partnership was in celebration of GE's Gravity Day, which takes place on September 8th (the rate of gravity is 9.8 m/s^2). During gameplay, the user could press the Gravity Mode button and all the dots would fall to the bottom of the screen [video], essentially resetting gameplay and giving the user a "hail Mary" option.

According to Cooper, this button was clicked more than 9 million times. GE got a huge number of impressions through this partnership and cultivated another marketing channel. Eventually, Dots made this feature available through an in-app purchase and created another revenue stream for its product. Both parties say that though the partnership was successful, each company still approaches new initiatives and partnerships with careful strategic scrutiny. Cooper noted that betaworks has consistently turned down other opportunities for partnerships. In general, the criteria by which these partnerships are vetted are important. Why? Designing everything with user experience in mind is paramount. Interrupting the user, making the experience uncomfortable for the user, or risking user abandonment are all conditions that should not be taken lightly. 

 How tech serves us + Behaviors are changing quickly

 The proliferation of smart objects is coming quickly. Olstein discussed some particular ways that the industry is embracing smart tech. For example, he mentioned a scenario where even appliances could purchase utilities in an auction based buy-and-sell based marketplace. In the near future, a refrigerator could consume energy through a data-driven model; in this example a smart object could purchase energy based on the lowest price and the best kilowatt availability. In such a scenario, smart objects aren’t just connected, but are making economic decisions through data and usage diagnostics. GE is making sure that the company has a competitive position in the industry. Through its innovation lab, the firm is actively exploring ways that humans interact with these objects and how other machines interact with them, as well.

Olstein joked, “Smart lighting and light bulbs are like the gateway drug for the smart home: it’s the lowest price point and [easiest] way to enter the consumer's home with trust.” Cooper, while a bona fide techie, considers himself a digital person who desires the experience of machine-to-human interaction to feel more analog. For example, he doesn't want to use a cell phone as the main interface when in his home. Cooper reflected on how he expects to use apps in the next 2 -3 years. Citing Amazon’s Alexa and Poncho, the betaworks weather application, he stated that consumers will shift away from navigating the phone's home screen and in-app discovery. Instead, the way we sift through the applications and how we interface with the products will become verbal and emotive.

Trendspotting is the secret sauce

When testing a business hypothesis,  execution is what matters. The speed of implementation and how fast companies can segue from strategy to execution is important. Addressing this point, Olstein described that working within GE Corporate allows his team to be nimble and disseminate information through the larger organization.

As a separate entity within GE, Olstein is not working against the same marketing objectives or quotas faced by the different operating units of GE, such as Aviation or Healthcare. Doing things at scale can be challenging but experimentation and the willingness to take chances set the brand apart from the competition. "No one really knows what technology or new platform will take off; that's why we try different techniques. If you can make a tool that spots trends for us or know what area is ripe for disruption, let me know, we'd be happy to buy it!" Olstein jokes.

There were about fifty people in attendance for this event. Audience member Ada Moldoveanu shared some thoughts on the speakers: "The event was particularly interesting because of the different views of the two speakers on how they want technology to interact with their lives. I also enjoyed hearing about the insights and discoveries on what the GE innovation lab is working on and how it’s getting there."

As companies still orient themselves to the changing landscape of technology and marketing, we all are facing a collective response to the rise in digital experiences and technology. As large firms and small ones alike race to explore and profit from these new terrains, this casual but poignant chat made it clear that we are in a period of change. We have entered a time when new ways of doing things, testing out features and functions, leading to unique partnerships. These partnerships can spring up in innovative ways and the future belongs to those who can effectively use technology to capitalize on them.