August 16, 2023
·
15
minute read

How Small Businesses are Making Money with AI

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Less than one year after ChatGPT publicly launched, went viral, and brought artificial intelligence into the mainstream, small businesses are using AI to make money.

If you’re wondering how to use AI to make money for your small business, marketing is the obvious answer. Unbounce’s recent report on the state of AI marketing revealed that 30% of small businesses are already using AI to support their marketing efforts. 

But that’s only part of the story. Small business owners are at the forefront of real world AI applications, using it to automate admin, do research, screen job candidates, and increase productivity across the board.

If you run a small business, you may be asking yourself, “Should I start using AI?”

But the question really worth asking is, “How do I catch up?”

AI is just a fad, though. Right? …Right?

Writing off AI as a flash in the pan is easy. That’s because the most-shared, most-viewed news published about AI focuses on two negative points: Its potential threat, and its failures.

If you’re in the mood to doomscroll, the future of AI makes for a juicy topic, ranking just below climate change and long COVID for the amount of dread it can inspire.

Well before ChatGPT hit the mainstream, self-declared futurologists were freaking out about AI. In their eyes, the technology people are using to make spoof movie trailers is the forerunner of an all-powerful entity that will either destroy or enslave humankind.

Not only do these claims make AI seem big, scary, and unapproachable, they add a sheen of unreality to any conversation about it. When articles in the mainstream press are painting pictures of humanity’s inevitable doom, it’s hard to focus on real world AI applications.

Then there are the failures. Someone gets AI to make a video of Will Smith eating spaghetti, with predictably off-putting results, and it goes viral. Or people start using AI to generate professional headshots, the output is a little too perfect, and it sparks furor over misrepresentation and body-shaming

AI’s failures are perfect content for the social media news cycle—visual, visceral, and easy to share. And if you’re worried artificial intelligence could take over the planet, watching the Will Smith spaghetti video is almost as reassuring as watching robots falling down.

Focusing on these two aspects—the scary/dystopian, and the uncanny/troubling—creates an unrealistic picture. It ignores the real, day-to-day, even banal applications for which current AI is suited. 

So it’s easy to push AI to the side and focus on running your business and living your life. Don’t worry any artificial intelligence applications that could actually be useful, and let the experts figure out how to make money with AI. In ten years—when ChatGPT is crafting perfect answers, and tools like Siri and Alexa have reached truly human-like levels of realism—maybe you’ll start messing around with it.

One problem: By then, you’ll already be behind the curve.

AI today is like search engines in ‘90s

When you wanted to search for something on the web in the late ‘90s, you’d use a tool that looked like this:

Image Credit: The Web Design Museum

There were lots of different search engines to choose from, and they would all deliver different results for the same search terms—because they all used slightly different technology. 

Yahoo! was originally a directory of links; you could browse them according to topic if you wanted. 

Image Credit: The Web Design Museum

WebCrawler was the first search engine to actually look at the contents of pages in its index to find relevant search results. (When it launched in 1994, it boasted 4,000 indexed pages.)

Image Credit: The Web Design Museum

AskJeeves was the first search engine to let you pose your search as a query, long before questions became SEO gold.

Image Credit: The Web Design Museum

Google didn’t launch until 1998, and part of what made it stand out was the simplicity of its interface. 

Image Credit: The Web Design Museum

Early search engines were a mess of text, links, buttons, and dropdown menus, tripping over themselves to prove they had the most to offer users.

It was easy to make a mistake using early search engines. Check out any ‘90s internet nostalgia thread on Reddit and you’ll find users recounting the days when clicking on a seemingly innocent search result could bombard you with pop-up ads for adult entertainment.

In fact, search engines were so hit and miss and the web as a whole so user unfriendly that publishers mimicked the Yellow Pages with printed directories of websites.

Public opinion at the time held that anything you read or saw on the web—or anyone you met—was highly suspect. 

Which is all to say search engines in the ‘90s had a lot in common with AI tools today:

  • A crowded playing field. Google was yet to become the gold standard, so there were many competing search engines in the ‘90s. Today, new AI tools are being launched daily, most offering some variation on competitors’ tools. It’s hard choosing the right one.
  • Public mystification. Most people who used search engines—either experimentally at work or school, or as dedicated early adopters—didn’t have a clear idea of how they worked. 
  • A bad reputation. In the ‘90s, everyone had a friend of a friend whose second cousin stumbled across something on the web they couldn’t unsee—usually after entering an innocuous query in a search engine. When AI stories go viral, they often focus on inaccuracies, offensive content, or uncanny responses from ChatGPT.

But if you’re self-employed and hoping to use AI to make money, there’s just one parallel you really need to focus on. 

In the ‘90s, a small number of businesses were adopting the technology. They were figuring out what worked and what didn’t, and how it could help their businesses. And because of that, by the time Google became a household word, they were far ahead of the pack.

Adopting AI now will give you an edge over the competition in 5 years (and 10 years, and 20)

In 1999, if you asked a small business owner whether they had a website, and whether it was possible to find it with a search engine, they probably would have said “No.” And also, “What’s a search engine?”

That year, there were 38.4 million businesses in the US alone, but just 3.6 million websites online. At that time, even with a surge of public interest in the web and billions of dollars being invested in internet startups, the average small business owner was not taking advantage of the technology.

Today, 71% of all US businesses have websites, and 77% use social media. Online reviews, Google rankings, and social media clout have become standard measures of marketing success even for the smallest businesses.

Plus, where do you turn when you need a question answered about your business or your industry? You google it. The sheer amount of free information and advice available to small business owners—everything from the best commercial backpack vacuums to tax write-offs for dog walkers—is staggering.

If you launched a website for your business and used search engines to answer questions in the ‘90s, you reached a smaller audience of potential customers and had fewer resources for research. 

But you also had less competition. Build a simple website for your business and index it with search engines, and you could become the top result when someone searched “dog walking business” on Yahoo! Use the internet for research and you could eliminate hours of labor spent pawing through old trade magazines or flicking through microfiche.

That’s where AI stands today. There’s a lot of hype. AI startups are receiving huge amounts of funding. Most of the public are mystified by AI, and a relatively small number are actively engaging with it. Very few are focused on the real-world applications of AI; they care more about memes and dystopian horror stories.

But five years from now—and ten years from now, and twenty—the situation will be different. As wrinkles are smoothed out, new tools are invented, and AI begins doing more for average, non-tech-obsessed folks—from providing customer care over the phone to acting as voice-activated personal assistants—you can expect it to become as ubiquitous as internet search is today.

And it will be the small businesses who first started exploring real world AI applications and using AI to make money that will benefit the most. 

By adopting AI now, you start developing skills like prompt engineering, which will be as essential in the future as googling is now. Plus, you can start using powerful tools, like AI-powered content marketing or AI personal assistants, before your competitors catch on. 

So, down to brass tacks: How can you use AI to start making your business money right now?

Five ways small businesses are using AI to make money

Your line of business may be so far removed from hyped-up technology like ChatGPT that you might as well be on different planets.

“What does AI have to do with installing and maintaining in-ground sprinklers?” you may ask, or, “Why would I need ChatGPT to help me sell vintage fabric on Etsy?”

AI probably won’t revolutionize the bread and butter of your business—the day-to-day work you do to keep earning revenue. 

But you can use AI to make money by letting it handle other tasks, like:

  • Helping you attract new customers, no matter what type of business you run, with inexpensive marketing 
  • Automating administrative tasks so you have free time to devote to your most profitable operations
  • Answering your questions so you can make informed decisions, explore new revenue streams, or improve your industry knowledge

Here are five ways to start using AI to make money for your business now. 

Big brand marketing content on a small business budget

Content marketing gets potential customers engaged with your business, proves your expertise in your industry, and helps you rank more highly in Google search results.

It used to be the preserve of big brands, not small businesses. It costs money to hire a professional writer to write articles for your blog, and to be competitive, you need to publish new posts on a weekly basis at the very least. Even rudimentary content marketing costs thousands of dollars per month to keep up.

AI is changing that. Large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT are good at composing short to medium-length blog posts, provided you give them useful prompts. Durable’s blog builder makes it easier by generating a list of article topics based on what type of business you run. 

Blog post topics for a landscaping business.

Just select a topic, and the blog builder writes it for you. It even picks out images and designs the content to match the design of your website.

Snapshot of a post created by Durable’s AI blog builder.

Because of how quickly AI can produce content, it takes less than an hour to create a blog for your business website and fill it with posts. 

The blog section filling up.

Blog posts don’t just help improve your ranking in Google. They’re an important tool for keeping your social media presence alive and top-of-mind with followers.

How many times have you gone to check out a local business on Facebook, only to find a page that hadn’t been updated in months or even years? It doesn’t always inspire trust to find a business’s online presence growing cobwebs.

Having your own blog gives you articles to share with followers. But it can also write social media posts for you. A ton of AI marketing tools promise to do just that for a monthly fee, but you can create unlimited posts with a free Durable trial.

 

A Facebook post generated with Durable’s marketing tools.

Creating AI-powered content for your blog and social media accounts won’t lead to an avalanche of new customers and clients overnight, but it gets you in the game; you’ll have professional-level marketing working for you at a fraction of the price, in time and cash, that it would cost you without AI. And if your competitors are still sleeping on real-world applications of AI, you’ll leave them in the dust.

Hiring an AI administrative assistant that costs next to nothing

How great would it be to have your own administrative assistant? An attentive individual who managed your schedule, organized your inbox, and took notes during meetings. Someone who could shoulder the burden of admin so you could focus on the work that earns your business the most revenue.

AI hasn’t quite reached the point where it will replace full-time assistants. But if there’s no room in your budget for hiring a human, that shouldn’t matter: AI tools can handle many of the same tasks at a fraction of the cost.

Taking online meeting notes

Fireflies.ai is one of the most popular meeting transcription tools available to businesses. If you work with a remote team—or if you just find using Zoom more convenient than meeting in person—Fireflies.ai can turn almost everything you and your team discuss into a searchable treasure trove of information. 

It’s especially useful if you’re organizing large projects with lots of moving parts, or if you take a lot of calls with clients and need to be able to go back and revisit your conversations. Billed annually, Fireflies.ai starts at $10 per user.

Taking dictation

Rev is a well-established transcription service using both humans and AI to do the job. But it recently doubled down on its AI commitments with the launch of Rev Max. You get 20 hours of audio transcription per month for $29.99, plus discounts on all their other services.

It’s a good choice if you’d rather think aloud than sit at your computer typing, or if you travel often for business and need to take notes on the fly. And thanks to its mobile app, Rev’s AI transcription service is also incredibly useful for in-person meetings: Sit down, hit record, and carry on as usual; when your meeting is over, you’ll have a complete transcript to save and share.

Email management

Sanebox promises to learn from your email habits and organize your inbox so you can focus on the emails that matter most. If you have a high volume of correspondence with clients or if email is the go-to platform for hashing things out with your team, it can save you being buried under the Re: Re: Re: Re: avalanche. 

The app syncs with Gmail, iCloud, and Office365, and starts at $7 per month.

Scheduling

Motion uses AI to arrange your schedule so your time is used as efficiently as possible. It works with teams, too, assigning tasks and blocking off time in workers’ schedules and keeping everything running smoothly. 

Unlike a lot of AI-powered business apps, which often seem targeted at the tech industry and white collar workers, Motion makes good cases for its value to tradespeople and companies doing equipment installation and repair. Team pricing starts at $12 per user.

Testing new business and product ideas on the fly

AI has automated a lot of the tasks involved in launching a new business or product, letting you launch quickly and easily without committing huge amounts of cash or work. You can test the waters in a lot of different areas, exploring new business opportunities, without worrying about wasting energy on something that may not work. 

Custom websites made to order

Durable’s website builder can generate a website for your product or business in just minutes, and even write social media posts, blog content, and promotional emails. 

You can literally launch your business online in a day and start connecting with customers. It’s perfect if you have a new side hustle in mind, but want to make sure there’s demand for it before you fully invest.

Interviewing potential (AI) customers

You can bounce ideas off AI by prompting it to take on personas of your potential customers. For instance:

While ChatGPT is no substitute for the real thing, it does a pretty good job at mimicking humans, and it can highlight parts of your product planning you may have overlooked:

You can conduct dozens of “interviews” like this in a short amount of time. And, best of all, it’s free.

Automating invoices, contracts, and other business documents

You can save time—and, therefore, money—by using AI to draft boilerplate business documents for your business. AI may even be able to bring extra expertise to the table, communicating information in the most efficient way possible and wording agreements so they hold up under legal scrutiny.

Voice-to-invoice with Rev and ChatGPT

You can speed up your invoicing process considerably by dictating line items and having ChatGPT compile them for you.

First, use a transcription service like Rev to transcribe the information. It might look like this:

When we feed that exact block of text into ChatGPT, this is the output:

You can use a similar approach to create receipts, or even add up the month’s income or expenses for some rough-and-ready bookkeeping.

Generating contracts with AI

There’s a lot of buzz about AI contracts, and for good reason. Large language models are well-suited to learning and interpreting different language registers, and remixing what they know of a particular topic into unique content. If the next lawyer you hire isn’t AI themself, they’ll most likely be using AI as part of their job.

Juro uses AI to generate contracts from scratch based on your specifications. It also lets you save and share them, and collect signatures, through an attractive app interface. It’s for businesses that create a lot of contracts—the basic package offers 500 contracts per year—and it’s also one of the pricier options; you’ll need to contact Juro directly for a quote.

If you’re looking for something less intensive, like generating client agreements or non-disclosure agreements for new employees, there are other options better suited to small business. Oneflow offers a less robust set of features compared to Juro, but with a free trial available and basic plans starting at $17 per employee per month, it’s more affordable.

Turning hours of research into minutes

No matter what type of business you run, you’re bound to come up with an industry-specific question once in a while. Often it would be faster and easier if you could have a researcher comb through all the data online and tell you what you need to know. But human researchers are expensive, and much has been made of ChatGPT’s tendency to give incorrect or skewed answers, even to very simple questions

In the case of ChatGPT, it’s the way the question was posed—the quality of the prompt, to use AI lingo—that results in the bad response. But other times, ChatGPT just straight up gets confused. And it also has limited knowledge to draw upon: Everything ChatGPT knows about the world it has learned from its training data, none of which is current past September 2021.

Besides that, ChatGPT typically isn’t able to cite its sources directly. If you ask it a question and it comes back with a response, you don’t get to see the page where it got the information and check it for accuracy.

All of this is old news. What many small business owners have failed to realize is that ChatGPT alternatives are already able to answer complex questions and back up their responses with accurate sources.

Bing Chat is the most widely known. It’s Microsoft’s answer to an anticipated swell in demand for AI chat bots. Ask Bing a question and it will come back with a fully cited response:

It will even source images and diagrams to help explain:

Bing’s biggest drawback is that it requires you to have a Microsoft account and use the Microsoft Edge web browser to use it.

As an alternative, try You.com. It doesn’t require you to create an account, and it works in all web browsers. The results are comparable to Bing, and—anecdotally—it generates answers faster.

There are so many use cases for AI-assisted search, it can be overwhelming to consider them all. For starters, make it a habit to ask Bing or You.com a question before you try google. After all, search engines have been around for almost 30 years. It’s time to try a newer, smarter solution, and AI-assisted search is it.

In the short term, by taking advantage of AI tools to market your business, handle admin, and get answers to pressing questions, you’ll begin to see more time opening up in your schedule. That’s almost guaranteed. The only requirements are patience as you get used to the new tools, and a willingness to experiment and learn.

The short term returns are modest. The long term returns, on the other hand, are potentially huge. Get the hang of writing prompts and using AI tools now, and you’ll begin to get a feel for how AI thinks. You’ll start discovering new ways you can use it to help your business become more efficient and more profitable. And, by the time life without AI is as hard to imagine as life without Google, you’ll already be an expert.

Take AI for a test spin with Durable’s AI website builder.

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