Some small businesses truly reinvent the wheel. Most, though, adapt perfectly good wheels to meeting customer needs and solving customer problems. Imitating competitors -- or, more often, non-competitors -- is a time-tested way to pursue startup success.

At one point, that meant everyone needed a website. Then a blog (which turned into content marketing). Then mobile applications.

Now it’s machine learning and artificial intelligence. If companies like Amazon are leveraging not only the automation but also the insights that result from artificial intelligence, shouldn’t you?

Maybe.

Or maybe not.

AI is all the buzz, and for good reason: When used in the right context, to solve the right problems, machine learning can be incredibly helpful. That's why, at LogoMix, we too jumped onboard the AI train.

With mixed results.

In some areas, like recommendations, AI turned out to be exactly what we needed. Helping customers determine the right products, the right services, the right add-ons, the best ways to build their brands and develop great marketing and advertising tools. AI definitely helped our business grow and increased customer satisfaction and loyalty.

But when we tried to use AI to solve other problems, it wasn't the right fit. AI can provide answers to irrelevant questions. AI can provide answers to questions no one asks. AI, just like data in general, is only useful if it results in insights that can be turned into productive actions.

When the trend isn't the right one for you 

Which is the point about AI and machine learning -- and about any tool you decide to use to build your business. No matter how trendy or buzz-worthy, the right tool is the tool that solves the exact problem you need to solve -- and does so at a cost, in both time and resources, that you can afford.

That's why, when man-machine interfaces (MMI) became all the rage in manufacturing, some plants decided to stick to pen-and-paper data collection "systems." Sure, automating data collection would be nice, but the cost far outweighed the benefits to those facilities. In time, many have added streamlined versions of MMI systems -- but only after the expense required dipped dramatically and the implementation became far easier.

That's also why, when Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems became all the rage in sales, some companies decided to stick to old-school "systems." Automating the process of managing customer interactions would be nice, but, as with the MMI trend, the cost far outweighed the benefits. In time, many have added streamlined versions of CRM systems -- but only after the expense required dipped dramatically and the implementation became far easier.

And after the benefits were proven.

Sometimes "new" really is better. Sometimes "new" will take your business to new heights. But oftentimes "new," no matter how buzz-worthy, will only distract you and your employees from what truly drives results for your small business.

Before you invest in the latest trend, make sure you've invested in areas that build a foundation for lasting success, including:

  • Great employees who have the freedom to make important decisions, act autonomously, and take intelligent risks.
  • Great systems that ensure you reliably deliver products and services that satisfy your customers and build brand loyalty.
  • Great systems that constantly test new ideas, spark creativity, and fill the pipeline with new products, new services, and new ways to solve customer needs.

Do those things, and you'll know how a hot new business trend can help your business. And, just as importantly, how it can't. Because sometimes deciding what not to do is even more important than deciding what to do.

Published on: May 31, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.