You’ve probably noticed Amazon Web Services (AWS) commercials running more often on television, or seen their ads in the airports, or maybe even stopped by their exhibitor’s booth at a conference you attended recently. AWS, with an annual revenue of over $18 billion, is one of the fastest growing parts of Amazon’s business.
And while many of the largest companies are using AWS to run parts of their business processes, there are many small businesses using one or more cloud services under the AWS umbrella. But there are still many small businesses not aware of what AWS has to offer them.
AWS for Small Business
I caught up with Richard “Buzzy” Busby, Principal Solution Architect at Amazon Web Services, at Xerocon earlier this month to learn more about how traditional small businesses can use AWS to grow their operations. Buzzy shares how a new product announced at AWS re:Invent, SageMaker, can help SMBs leverage the power of machine learning to find insights into important business areas. He also discusses how SMBs can get involved with using Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant to connect with customers, and how they can leverage AWS technology partners to get new business ideas quickly in action on the AWS platform.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To see the full interview click on the video below, or the embedded SoundCloud player.
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Small Business Trends: The big re:Invent conference for AWS in Vegas. So maybe you can give me some of the key things the SMB crowd would be able to learn more about AWS?
Richard Busby: I think one of the big key focuses for AWS at re:Invent last week was machine learning and artificial intelligence. We announced a number of products that kind of democratized machine learning. So historically machine learning you’ve had to have a data scientist or a machine learning expert on your staff, or be able to get access to one, and these people are rare and they’re really expensive. And it makes it really difficult for SMBs to utilize that, right? We announced a thing called SageMaker. And this was hugely well received by our customers.
The idea is that it’s kind of a guided process for creating a machine learning model to solve problems. And it’s not dictatorial about what problem you have, but it ships with a number of really useful examples. So what you can do with SageMaker is you can create a notebook as a way of expressing a problem you’ve got and the sort of model you want to run to interpret some results. And it ships with a bunch of predetermined models.
A really useful one for SMB is for example, Customer Churn. So you could input a bunch of your existing data in it, and it might be some of your sales history for your customers. It might be, if you maintain a website, you might have clickstream data, so an idea of when a user visits your website, like how long [they’ve] been on the site, what pages are they looking at, what kind of products are they looking at, are they adding things to their basket, removing things.
So take whatever data you’ve got. Give it to the SageMaker process and tell it you want to look at this particular class of problem, like customer churn. And SageMaker will run up an environment. It will train a model based on the data you’ve given it. And then it will use some of the remaining data to assist how accurate that model is. Then it will produce a bunch of findings for you, which then you can look at in SageMaker; and you can export them out or look at them in another tool or whatever.
The idea is that then you can get a model based on the data you’ve got. Say, “Well what does my customer churn look like?” And you can then take that model and apply it to future transactions or future behavior. So you can start identifying, for example, if a customer is exhibiting this behavior, are we in a position where we might start losing that customer. Once you know that, or you suspect that, then you’re in a powerful position. You can start taking action to say, “Well if we did this thing, maybe then we wouldn’t lose that customer.”
Historically, that’s kind of been the sort of stuff we’ve needed; Like I said, data scientists and machine learning experts. And the idea behind things like SageMaker is to make this kind of stuff accessible. You might not be able to kind of drag and drop this stuff as a business person. But it’s going to be much easier for you to find your current IT people, your tech support, the kind of folks you deal with day to day and get them involved in using this stuff to help you solve these business problems.
Small Business Trends: What about … everybody is talking about Alexa and Echo. What is small businesses … some of them feel like ‘well, that’s kinda out of our reach.’ Is that something that AWS could help them get into and start looking at?
Richard Busby: Yeah, absolutely. During our day two keynote, the Amazon.com CTO, Dr. Werner Vogels, talked about interaction models these days with pieces of software. Now, historically, you’ve had an old kind of green screen. You can type stuff in on a keyboard, punch cards. And increasingly we are moving towards more human-centered interaction models for things. And Alexa’s a really good example of that. I have one at home, and it’s super useful for my kids to be able to do things like telling it what music they want or setting a timer or asking questions about the weather or just investigative facts, playing simple games, like 20 question-type games. Things like that. So what we’ve built Alexa to be from the ground up is to be extensible and to be open. So, as a small business owner, you can write what’s called an Alexa Skill and plug that into Alexa and then publish it and make it available for people. We’ve announced Alexa Skills in the past for people like Domino’s where you can order a pizza through Alexa, Uber where you can order a ride through Uber. And these are large companies with lots of resources to throw at it.
But actually creating an Alexa Skill is fairly easy. You do need a degree of computer programming experience. It’s not something that you can just walk into if you’ve never programmed a computer. So if you’re a really small business, you might still be working with your IT provider or getting an AWS partner who has the skills and the development experience to be able to do this. But it’s not massive matter. You’re not talking three years and millions of dollars to do this. You essentially write out intents, which are ‘this is the kind of question my customer will ask’.
Like, how do I order a coffee? I’m going to say something along the lines of, “Alexa, I want to order a coffee,” or “Alexa, order me a coffee.” You write these things out. Then you write out a system that interfaces with your services, and that’s not a lot of code. And then you write ‘how do I respond’. You know, “Here’s your coffee,” or “Here’s your order number”. And Alexa will take care of turning those pieces of text back into voice. It will take care of understanding what the customer’s asking when it’s speaking to the device.
And so I think the biggest challenge for small businesses is that middle point of Alexa now understands what you want it to do and it needs to send that to you. So, as a small business, you need to have systems that are equipped to say when someone orders a bunch of nails from me, how do I process that order? If I have a website and I can process customer orders through my website, I’m probably already 90% of the way there of being able to plug Alexa into that automated process if someone can do that.
If you don’t have any kind of ecommerce channel today or any kind of digital presence or website, then integrating Alexa into something that doesn’t exist is gonna be more effort. So you might start with something that’s actually fairly basic like … what it ends up doing is sending, basically, an email to you. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re gonna get a response and ship a bunch of nails to your customer immediately or book them a hair appointment immediately.
But you will be able to, at least, understand what someone’s asked for. So depending on how advanced you are as a business or any sort of digital, ecommerce, and things like that, is going to be … that’s how much easier it’s gonna be for you to integrate with Alexa. But it’s certainly easy to do so.
Small Business Trends: So you’ve been with AWS for about three and a half years. I asked you this a little bit before. I wanted to get you on camera and talk about what are the biggest things, maybe misconceptions or challenges, that small businesses may have when they think about AWS. What are some things that maybe are stopping them from using it to their fullest?
Richard Busby: I think there’s this potential perception that we’re just not big enough to use this. And the reality is that we’ve got customers, right, from extremely large customers all the way down to very, very small organizations. So if you are a small customer and you’ve got a business problem around, like your accounts are currently being done manually, you don’t want to end up going and building your own accounting software. So go and use Xero; it is a really great example. They’re a software as a service and they run on AWS, which is great, but that solves a business problem for you. So sometimes you’ll go and use software as a service for things like that. Amazon has things that will do stuff like managed email for you or things like that if you need remote workers or things.
But you’ll also find that there’s going to be times, if you’re a small business, you’ve got certain things that you need to do and it’s going to involve writing some software to solve that. And that’s the point where you can start, if you’ve got software development teams inside your company, then you can get the software development teams to use AWS directly. If you’re a really small business, you probably don’t have software developers. Go to an AWS partner, and these are organizations with developers and experience using AWS that can take your business problem and convert that into a piece of software, that runs on Amazon that solves your business problem. And it doesn’t have to be three years and millions of dollars and a massive project these days. It can be stuff where whoever’s developing it, whether it’s you internally or your partner, can be developing stuff in an agile format. We develop a minimum viable product. We get it in front of you and we say, “What do we need to do next? How do we change and evolve it?” So even small businesses can start taking advantage of AWS.
Small Business Trends: And it’s not just the high-flyer, born-in-the-cloud companies. Traditional small businesses … there are pieces that they can begin using right away.
Richard Busby: Yeah, absolutely. At a really, really basic, fundamental level, things like backing up all of your information somewhere: You’ve got systems on site right now, servers on site something like that. Backing up into AWS provides you an offsite back up, like really simple and easy. Often what we find with even very traditional organizations is that they will have some kind of new directional marketing or something like that. And that’s an impetus for you to make a break into the cloud.
You may be a very traditional organization, but you may find that there’s a new business venture you want to go into, a new marketing campaign you want to launch. If you want to launch a new kind of marketing campaign or something like that, then, rather than running it yourself in your existing systems, doing that as a project in the cloud on AWS.
Sometimes these things aren’t right. They’re experiments. We’re gonna try and create a new thing and see how it works. If it’s not successful, then you’re not tied into years of contractual stuff and massive capital upfront spends. You fail fast. You fail cheaply. You learn from it. If it’s wildly successful and it turns out to be a hundred times bigger than you thought, then you can really easily scale up the amount of stuff you use in Amazon. Yes, you’ll be paying more for it, but that’s because the stuff is wildly successful and you’re earning a lot of money in it, which is great.
Small Business Trends: Buzzy, where can people go to learn more about the AWS? And where can small businesses learn or maybe get a good partner?
Richard Busby: Yeah, sure. If you go to AWS.amazon.com, that’s our main AWS page. If you go to AWS.amazon.com/partners, that lists all of our partners. If you also just do a search for AWS case studies … And so this is really super useful. We have case studies for like large enterprises, for small businesses, for startups, for government, all these sort of, kind of different sectors. So you can go and look at case studies where we’ve, for startups and small business, where we’ve talked about here are the successes that small businesses have had by using AWS. And that’s really useful for you as a small business because it shows you the art of what’s possible.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.