Practical guide to using AI as a small business


Date: 21 June 2024

Man uses a laptop with Chat GPT AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly transforming the world, and its impact is felt far beyond the tech giants and multinational corporations. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are discovering that AI is not just hype, but a tool that can greatly optimise their operations, drive growth and reduce costs.

As a serial entrepreneur juggling multiple businesses, I've always used technology to maximise efficiency. In this blog post, I'll share my latest discoveries, how AI has transformed aspects of my businesses, and why I believe every business owner can benefit from this new technology.

What is AI?

AI is essentially a computer system that can mimic human intelligence. These systems are designed to understand language, recognise patterns, solve problems, and even learn from experience. While AI may seem like a recent phenomenon, we've been interacting with it for years without realising it, from voice assistants to personalised recommendations on streaming platforms.

The recent rise of generative AI, such as ChatGPT for text generation and DALL-E for image creation, has taken AI to a whole new level. These tools can create a wide range of content based on simple prompts, making seemingly complex technology vastly more accessible.

My AI journey

A few years ago, I was sceptical about AI, assuming it was the preserve of large corporations with deep pockets. Then along came ChatGPT and I began to see first hand how this easy-to-use AI tool could save time and reduce costs (more on this below). This early success laid the foundation for my deeper exploration of AI's potential.

A month after GPT's release, we made a strategic decision to start building new systems with AI at their core. One of our first major projects was the development of a new CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system. By integrating AI into the heart of our CRM, we were able to automate many routine tasks, generating letters, emails and recommendations for example. As our proficiency with AI grew, so did our ambitions. We wanted to create a tool that could help with strategic business planning, this led to the development of Venture Planner.

Launched in January, Venture Planner is an AI-powered platform that helps businesses create plans and identify opportunities. The platform starts by gathering data about a user's business idea. This includes information about the product or service, target market, competitive landscape, financial projections, and more. Once the data is collected, Venture Planner's AI goes to work. It analyses the information, identifies patterns and trends, and generates a comprehensive business plan. This isn't a simple template-based output, but a detailed, customised document that includes in-depth market analysis, marketing strategies, operational plans, and long-term financial projections.

So, if you need a business plan, give Venture Planner a try. I telling you this not just to shamelessly plug Venture Planner (okay, maybe a little), but more importantly, to illustrate how deeply involved I have been with AI since its inception.


Simple use cases

Ok, so AI can be used to build innovative and powerful software, but that doesn't really help the average small business. What we have found is that the most value has been gained by using a simple prompt-based interface like ChatGPT.

We regularly use ChatGPT to help create training plans; interview questionnaires, press releases, meeting agendas, compliance documents, brochures, risk assessments, newsletters, creative briefs, video scripts, the list goes on and on.

Perhaps most impressively, we've even used ChatGPT to create initial drafts of various contracts and legal agreements. By providing the AI with key terms, conditions, and requirements, it can generate professional and legally sound contracts. Of course, we always have these reviewed by our legal team, but the AI's initial drafts save us significant time.

While ChatGPT is our go-to for most text generation tasks, we've also had great success using Google's Gemini for analysing larger spreadsheets and datasets. Gemini's ability to process and derive insights from vast amounts of data has been invaluable for our business intelligence efforts. We've used it to identify trends, make predictions, and uncover opportunities that we might have otherwise missed.

We've used Midjourney, DALL-E, and Stable Diffusion for image generation tasks with great results. Although it should be noted that when it comes to images of humans, there's no substitute for a good stock image - unless you prefer people with six fingers!

We're currently looking at implementing AI-powered chatbots from Drift to enhance our customer service. These chatbots can handle routine enquiries allowing our team to focus on more complex issues.

These are just a few simple examples of how AI can be incorporated into daily operations with little to no technical knowledge. The efficiency gains and cost savings can be substantial, and we continue to explore new ways to leverage AI across our businesses every day.

Use responsibly!

AI systems learn from the data they are trained on. If your data is biased or incomplete, the AI's outputs will reflect those limitations. As a small business owner, it's crucial to critically evaluate the AI tools you use to ensure they align with your values and goals. For example, a small book store using an AI-powered recommendation system trained on a dataset primarily including books by male authors may inadvertently promote gender bias by recommending fewer books by female authors.

Also, remember that AI relies heavily on data. As a small business owner, it's your responsibility to prioritise the privacy and security of your customers' and employees' sensitive information. When using AI tools that process personal data, it's essential to ensure compliance with relevant data protection regulations.

In our HR department, we've recently begun using AI to assist in screening job applicants. However, AI systems can sometimes perpetuate biases if they are trained on historical hiring data that reflects past discriminatory practices. To mitigate this risk, we manually review the AI's decisions. Based on our experience so far, I suspect that our AI system may be less biased than the average human recruiter, as it strictly adheres to objective criteria. Nonetheless, we remain vigilant.

Getting started

The key to successfully integrating AI into your business is to start small and focus on specific use cases. Identify areas where AI can have the most significant impact and choose tools that align with your budget and technical expertise.

Remember, AI is a tool that complements, not replaces, human expertise. By combining the power of AI with human ingenuity and creativity, you can quickly unlock efficiency, productivity, and innovation.

In summary

AI is not a passing trend; it's here to stay. Embracing AI is no longer a luxury but a necessity for SMBs that want to remain competitive in the digital age. By harnessing the power of AI, you can streamline operations, enhance customer experiences, and drive growth. The future is AI-powered, and it's up to you to seize the opportunities it presents.

Copyright 2024. Article made possible by Alex Clansey, Head of Private Client at Dunham McCarthy .

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