Intelligent Entrepreneurship: How AI and Automation are Working in Favour of Small Businesses

By Jeff Cates

Over the past year, we’ve seen automation technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) revolutionize nearly every industry – from transportation, to finance, to healthcare. Self-driving trucks are now driving routes from California to Texas, while AI-assisted diagnostic systems can identify various cancers in the early stages, driving earlier detection, improving treatment and ultimately saving lives.

As AI becomes an increasingly pervasive part of daily life, small businesses are embracing this new technology to set loftier goals and achieve more, faster. There’s undoubtedly a business case for embracing AI. PwC forecasts that AI will increase the global economy 14% by 2030 – totaling US$15.7-trillion ($19.4-trillion CAD) – stemming from productivity gains and increases to product value and consumption.

According to Intuit Canada’s latest report, ‘Automation and the impact on Canadian Small Business’, Canadian entrepreneurs are early adopters of automation technology, with 61% of small businesses currently using it to run their businesses. They’re embracing the potential AI holds to boost operational workflows, so they can spend less time on the mundane and more time growing their businesses.

In 2018, we’ll continue to see accelerated adoption of automation technologies like AI. Here’s how these innovations are poised to impact Canadian small business for the better in the coming year.

Harnessing AI & machine learning

Our research uncovered that many Canadian small business owners welcome the AI revolution, with 57% of entrepreneurs feeling positive about the impact automation will have on their business over the next five years. However, perhaps unsurprisingly given our national aversion to risk, entrepreneurs in Canada are approaching these technologies with greater skepticism than our neighbours to the south: two thirds of U.S. entrepreneurs report that automation will positively impact their business over the next five years, nearly 10% more than those in Canada.

On a macro level, the federal government has also recognized the potential of AI to drive national innovation and economic growth. This past spring, Ottawa announced it will invest $125 million over the next five years for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy to enhance Canada’s international profile in AI research and training. As these investments come to fruition, we’ll see new opportunities to integrate machine learning and AI into our business ventures and daily lives.

Impact of virtual assistants

One of the top secrets of highly successful business leaders? Don’t try to do everything yourself. However, delegating can be a huge challenge for small business owners who’ve put their blood, sweat, tears and often livelihood into building their business. What’s more, even if entrepreneurs are open to getting help, they often don’t have the time or resources to hire.

Luckily, the explosion of virtual assistants (VA) is changing the way we do business in Canada and helping solve a huge pain point for business owners: managing their time. VA’s can help entrepreneurs automate menial tasks, manage customer relationships more efficiently and even offer strategic insights into their businesses to drive growth.

The new QuickBooks Assistant, for example, is a virtual assistant that offers a conversational chat experience and solves a common problem for the self-employed and small business owners: quickly and easily staying on top of their finances. Combining data-driven insights and natural language processing, QuickBooks Assistant understands intent and identifies context to uncover numerous financial data points – from tax obligations to expense tracking, cash flow, profitability and more – saving precious time and giving entrepreneurs the insights necessary to make informed financial decisions with confidence. It only takes a few seconds for QuickBooks Assistant to tell entrepreneurs how much money they made last month, how much tax they’ll owe at the end of the year, how long their current cash flow will last, or even how profitable the most recent customer was compared to the previous five. All they need to do is ask a question, and the QuickBooks Assistant answers.

AI drives growth

Despite understandable pubic concern in Canada over AI and job displacement, Canadian small business owners report that automation technology will actually lead to more jobs within their companies, not less. Twenty-three per cent report that it will drive an increase in employees at their firm, and only 11% think these technologies will cause them to reduce their total number of employees.

AI-powered tools are already proving to be a major cost saver for businesses around the world, and while there will undeniably be an impact on the makeup of the global labour market as these technologies automate templated activities, by freeing up significant resources they will also allow companies to invest more into new hires. For example, thanks to recent advances in AI, chatbots will save businesses $8 billion annually worldwide by 2022, up from $20 million this year, according to a recent Juniper Research report.

As AI algorithms continue to increase in sophistication, companies like Intuit can refine our AI-powered solutions for small business owners, allowing software to become more predictive and proactive and ultimately reduce barriers to success for business owners in Canada and around the world. If you’re an entrepreneur who hasn’t yet realized the power of these innovations to simplify how your business is run, I encourage you to make 2018 the year you embrace AI.

Jeff Cates is President of Intuit Canada.