Last week, at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York City, there was a rare intersection of business suits and hipsters in skinny jeans. The business suit, in this case, was worn by GE’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt, sans tie and relaxed. In the skinny jeans, perched on a stool next to Immelt was Scott Heiferman, co-founder and chief executive of Meetup.com. In the audience, appropriately enough, a hundred or so folks drawn from area groups — called Meetups — focused on entrepreneurialism, the environment, sustainable business, inventing and others.
The gathering was a joint effort by Meetup.com and GE to highlight the Ecomagination Challenge, a novel effort by GE that aims to “crowd source” new ideas, products and services from the public to create tomorrow’s smart grid. The reward for winning ideas? The opportunity and funding to work with GE to turn them into a business. GE has teamed up with a handful of venture capital players to commit $200 million to take winning submissions from idea to reality.
It may not be obvious why Immelt, CEO of a $157 billion global industrial goods and financial services juggernaut was sharing the stage with Heiferman. In his intro Heiferman was self-mocking, pointing out that Meetup’s annual revenue is what GE churns out in a few hours. But Heiferman’s website is a leader in the online world of social networking. Founded in 2000, the site made wider headlines in 2004 as an emerging tool for Democrats to tap into young voters. These days, Meetup.com boasts over seven million users, who rely on it to help communicate about gatherings and issues on everything from knitting circles to Tea Party rallies.
Immelt was quick to point out that no matter how big GE may be, old school corporate culture is not as agile at identifying and commercializing innovative ideas as a start-up like Meetup can be. Immelt was there to learn: “You don’t get to a job like mine without a healthy paranoia about how new things — like Meetup — work,” he joked. “I need to understand how this works so I can use it sell more stuff in the future.”
For GE, Immelt continued, size is both a liability and a virtue. “How can you, over generations, make size an advantage? That’s really hard to do because size brings bureaucracy and makes you a big target,” he said. With a laugh, he asked: “Does the way Alec Baldwin acts on 30 Rock hurt your feelings?… It can be true!” referring to the NBC comedy’s stinging satire about bureaucracy at GE, the network’s long-time corporate parent. The upside of size, he went on, is running a company that can take a successful idea and scale it quickly. Consider the wind turbine market, Immelt said: “We bought it for $200 million from Enron [in 2002]. This year it will generate $7 billion in sales. We generate as much cash per month from the business as we paid for it.”