Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Small Business

Artificial Intelligence Machine Learning Brain Vector Image

We’re Not Quite There Yet

If you’ve been keeping up with the latest trends in technology and business, you’re probably sick of hearing about AI. There are a lot of articles about the future of machine learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) infiltrating our lives, but as a small business owner, you might not even know how it affects you.

Some people think it’s impossible to incorporate AI or ML into your systems unless you’re a Facebook or Google. Others believe that integrating new technologies like AI into your business makes it more valuable.

In reality, right now AI is buzzing in the media, but it likely doesn’t affect your business at all. Before understanding how AI can impact your business, you need to have a nuanced understanding of what AI can do.

What is AI Again?

Broadly speaking, when people talk about AI they’re usually talking about machine learning. Machine learning is the ability to show a machine many instances of something, and allow it to make predictions based on what it’s learned. Rather than a human reviewing something by hand, a machine can learn and recognize specific patterns that allow it to make decisions based on particular circumstances.

When Alexa suggests a new Amazon gadget for you to buy; that’s AI. When Netflix suggests the perfect new show for you to binge; that’s also AI.

Artificial Intelligence and machine learning come in handy the most in roles that involve a lot of data with definitive outcomes based on that data.

The machine can’t write its own rules, nor can it explain what it’s doing. It can only recognize the behavior, which it sees as a series of code. It can’t tell you why it does anything, so it’s challenging to interpret why machines decide the way they do. This raises some concerns when taking ML information and applying it to your market.

As a Small Business Owner, Why Should You Care?

The truth is that most small businesses don’t have enough data to utilize AI technology fully. The best way to see if you can start considering using AI is to assess if companies high above your revenue are using AI. 

Until big companies in your industry are using AI, you probably can’t. Businesses with only a few transactions per day can’t compete with the amount of data a company like Netflix or Spotify has where they are analyzing user behaviors and making millions of times per day.

The problem there lies in the data. Even if your small business is hugely profitable and looking into AI, you need to understand the amount of sheer data you need to make it even worthwhile.

It should come as no surprise that the businesses that can benefit from AI and ML the most are the ones with the most significant digital footprint of their sales and marketing efforts.

If your business is still doing a lot of traditional marketing like in-person events, or mailers, you’ll have a more difficult time automating your processes. To leverage AI in marketing, you need to have as many digital touchpoints as possible to follow your customer journey more accurately.

Ways to use AI as a Small Business

If you do choose to implement AI into your business, there are a few routes to take depending on your budget and the level of tech you’re looking for.

You can hire an AI vendor to help determine which AI solutions are right for you or ease yourself into using AI by incorporating AI tools into your marketing.

Work With a Vendor

The easiest way to gain access to AI technology that you can use in your business is to work with a vendor. AI vendors can bridge the gap and make AI more available to all businesses.

When working with a vendor, make sure they have a specific solution for small businesses. Your needs are going to differ from those of a big company, and your systems will look different.

The industry, in its current state, makes it difficult for small business to justify working with vendors. The cost and time investments alone deter small businesses from working for AI vendors.

If vendors solutions can make themselves accessible to small businesses, they can begin to bridge the accessibility gap that exists in the industry.

Use existing AI tools

There are smaller, less costly ways of implementing AI somewhere in your business. Small businesses can’t amass the data needed for AI to work but could leverage the industry based data out there. Most AI tools don’t require you to have a ton of in-house data making it a good solution for small businesses.

A local store won’t have enough sales to track purchase trends by demographics, but they can use those same demographics in targeted ads through Facebook and Google.  Facebook ads can be considered an AI platform since it is tracking users interactions and constantly learning their patterns. You are not collecting the data yourself but are leveraging their machine learning.

Regardless of how you choose to work with AI, you’ll need a good understanding of your customer data to make it valuable.

Should AI be on Your Radar?

Most AI solutions you read about probably aren’t appropriate for your small business.

Implementing AI in a way that will impact your business requires an investment that most small business just can’t afford to make. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention. Sooner or later AI will trickle into your business in one form or another.

As a small business owner, try to avoid shiny object syndrome. It can be easy to get distracted by the hype around AI. Before thinking about implementing or even looking into AI for your small or medium sizes business, see if any large companies in your niche are using it. If they aren’t, then it’s likely you won’t even have enough data for it to make a meaningful impact on your business.

Just because you’re reading about something in TechCrunch doesn’t mean that information applies to your business.


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