A quick glance at the latest headlines -- self driving cars, cashier-less grocery stores -- will leave no doubt that we have arrived in the age of artificial intelligence (AI). While big tech shifts have traditionally delivered disproportionate advantages to big companies who can afford the underlying infrastructure, I believe that the age of AI will play out differently. 

In this era, nimble, more adaptable small businesses are poised to reap advantages in equal, and often greater proportion to large companies -- despite their deep pockets and data goldmines. 

To find out how small businesses are really adapting in the age of AI, my company, Intuit, recently partnered with Emergent Research to survey U.S.-based small business owners and managers about their attitudes toward automation technologies. We found that small businesses aren't reeling or playing catch up to the global giants. Rather, they're on the front lines in navigating this new era. Here are a few data points from the survey:

  • Sixty-six percent are already using some form of automation in their business, and overwhelmingly positive attitudes suggest that small businesses will continue to be bullish on adopting automation in the years ahead.
  • Fifty-four percent said they see automation as an opportunity, and despite the headlines and studies claiming automation's "disruptive" impact on business and employment, only five percent said they see automation technology as a serious threat to their business.
  • One percent said they felt significant job reductions were imminent due to automation technology - dispelling the myth that small business owners are fearful of automation's impact on "mom and pop" jobs.  

Plug-in tools and services have removed barriers to deploy AI, bringing the practical power of automation to even the smallest of businesses.

Take, for example, Future Glory, a San Francisco-based maker of socially conscious handcrafted leather bags and accessories. Founder Theresa Lee relies on QuickBooks integrations with Shopify and PayPal to automate all transaction information into the financial management product to ensure accurate and real-time reporting, and give more time back to the design process (Disclaimer: my company makes QuickBooks). Lee spends less than 20 minutes a day on numbers, so she can focus on the heart of her business -- creating unique leathercrafts.

San Jose-based P3iD Cloud is a small business that is helping to level the playing field when it comes to automation. The company's offering, P3iD Cloud QuickBooks Receipt, scans receipts, and then automatically extracts and classifies the receipts directly into QuickBooks. Founder Kevin Neal says this simple tool helps reduce or eliminate wasted labor costs associated with manual data entry of business travel receipts -- typically saving employees two to three hours of time per trip.

The survey revealed automation's practical benefits to be the most valued by the small business owner: "freeing up time to get more work done" (79 percent) and "helping with customer service" (77 percent) were the top benefits mentioned.   

If you are one of the many small businesses looking to implement some form of automation technology this year, keep these three tips in mind:

Consider the cloud.

Moving your system from on-premise servers to cloud services like Google Apps, for example, is a necessary first step to embracing automation. Despite the positive attitudes, many small businesses are still not set up to take advantage of automation: almost 1 in 5 are not using the cloud. Doing so will set you on the right path toward automation, while also saving you money.

Leverage intelligent platforms.

Big data (24 percent), natural language processing (17 percent), and machine learning (12 percent) were ranked as the top categories of products in use in our survey. Fortunately, gaining access to these no longer requires a data warehouse, big budget, or a major infrastructure overhaul.

Today, the most advanced automation technologies are easily accessible to small businesses via affordable third-party tools that plug a company's data and workflow into AI and machine learning-powered platforms. Intelligent platforms like QuickBooks, for example, bring together more data than any one enterprise, meaning that the smallest business can now compete at scale around the world.

Hone your niche.

In a world filled with products like Siri, Alexa and Google Home, the niche products and services offered by small businesses will carry that much more weight in customer value. Allow automation to improve your business on the back-end, so you can focus on cultivating what has always made your small business unique on the front-end (like hyper-local apparel, or face-to-face customer service, for example).

While we can't predict every impact of automation on our economy, workforce and society, one thing is certain: small business owners will lead the charge in figuring out how to navigate and take advantage of this new reality.

Published on: Apr 30, 2018