Last week’s conversation with Katherine Kostereva of Creatio on how low-code/ no-code development platforms will be a huge factor in helping non-programmers to automate their own tasks and processes was eye opening for me. And I wanted to see how the message of the importance and relevance of the latest automation tools is being received by microbusinesses as well as self-employed folks – people who need the most help getting things done to stay afloat. Which is why it was great timing being able to follow my conversation with Katherine up with Jon Fasoli, VP and Segment Leader, Small Business and Self-employed, for Intuit.
During our LinkedIn Live conversation Jon shared with me how artificial intelligence and automation is helping even one-person bands spend more of their precious time on experimenting with new ways to connect with customers and prospects, and less time doing mundane activities. He also discusses how more digital interactions are feeding AI in platforms like Quickbooks that automatically provide insights into your business that lead to better decision making on how to best use the limited resources smaller businesses have at their disposal in order to make the most of tough situations like we’ve all faced over the past 15 months.
Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. Click on the SoundCloud player to hear the whole conversation.
Current state of microbusinesses and the self-employed
Small Business Trends: You have millions and millions of business customers using QuickBooks. Maybe I can get high-level thoughts from you on where your small business customers are in terms of handling the pandemic? And break it down to how are the self-employed handling it? Maybe if they are handling it differently than the small businesses in general.
Jon Fasoli: I’ll be honest, there’s a lot more resiliency than I had thought in the darkest days of the pandemic when we all went into lockdown upfront. We went to work focusing on getting PPP loans in the hands of our customers and essentially any program that existed, whether it was GoFundMe or government programs, just getting money to customers to create some resilience in this situation. And one of the things that has been, I shouldn’t say surprising, the halo in this terrible pandemic that we’ve been in is how small businesses and self-employed have innovated and pivoted and picked up new business, transformed existing businesses, taking care of their employees. It’s just the stories of sacrifice to take care of their customers, employees, and their families have been so uplifting.
And to your question around self-employment and if that’s different, there’s obviously a spectrum of self-employed individuals from the survive mode to the thrive mode. We’ve seen on the survive mode, obviously, an uptake in terms of gig opportunities. We’re all getting stuff shipped to our front doors these days and there are some brave essential workers who are self-employed, who are doing that work on our behalf. And then you have a lot of more service-oriented self-employed folks, so think about your photographers or your coaches. And there was definitely, and this is anecdotally working with customers, a big hit upfront. But I think similar to small businesses, they’ve figured out how to do work in this environment. They’ve either pivoted online or they’ve pivoted outside a lot of times, but it’s been really inspiring to see the transformation. And it will be very interesting going forward to see how a lot of the digital transformation sticks as we start to open back up as an economy.
Microbusiness Digital Transformation: Pre-pandemic vs Post-pandemic
Small Business Trends: I’m so glad you brought that up because I think particularly when it comes to small businesses and in the self-employed… Hey, I’m one of the self-employed so I can speak from that experience. Digital transformation maybe had a meaning pre-pandemic that I think has changed post-pandemic. I thought pre-pandemic folks who were saying digital transformation were really saying digital transition. How do they take some of these manual processes and automate them so that they’re more efficient and cheaper to do? Which to me is not digital transformation as much as digital transition. You just want to do the same thing, but you want to automate it so you don’t have to do it, but you still want the same thing done [crosstalk 00:03:51] versus transformation, which is like, “Oh, I can do things that I never could do before, or maybe even didn’t even think of were possible. But now, because of the technology that’s at our disposal, I can do some things that I never would have dreamed of before.” Are you seeing the necessity for digital transition moving towards digital transformation at this point, as we get close to the end with this?
Jon Fasoli: Yeah. I think there’s a really interesting interplay between the two. I 100% agree with you. I think that the transformation part of the transition there has really come to life as a lot of folks who may have been skeptical about their industry or their type of business, or just them as a person, being able to scale digitally. We’re all kind of forced into it and I think the data has shown that it worked for a lot of small businesses who are QuickBooks’ customers. And I do think the interplay, though, lands in realizing how technology can work for your business. And when you’ve unlocked these achievements of, let’s say, growing business, or finding new customers, or finding new product lines online, it begs the question, “What else can this thing do for me?”
And I think there’s just a huge number to your point of transition items, which are consuming hours of time. Just within QuickBooks we have a stat of over 30 hours of time that QuickBooks can remove from your business. That’s more than a day of work, a physical day, like a 24 hour day of just stuff you don’t actually need to be doing. But oftentimes, as I’ve seen businesses scale and grow, it’s hard to let go of those tasks and it gives a sense of control. And sometimes it’s easy to forget how valuable your time is as a small business owner. And if there’s a silver lining, I’m hoping that folks have discovered how technology can do some of that low-value work for them so they can focus on the high-value business growth items.
AI for Microbusinesses in a pandemic
Small Business Trends: AI has become such a buzz word and you could ask 10 people what AI is and you’ll get like 20 different answers. Don’t ask me, but I did the math there. But what role has AI played in this pandemic in potentially helping smaller businesses see to the other side?
Jon Fasoli: I think you really hit it with that last statement of seeing to the other side. And preface, I’m going to speak to a bunch of things that QuickBooks can do because I’m closest to it, but I think it’s fair to extrapolate beyond QuickBooks as well with the examples. What AI can do way better than we can do as individuals is look at a huge amount of data, past and present, and make recommendations, and not just our data but aggregated data. So the larger community that you participate in, the more powerful AI can be in helping you make those decisions. A very real example in the pandemic is around cashflow. If there were any other time in recent history where cashflow was king, it was this past year and even the moment now. And what AI can do in QuickBooks for example is create a very simple, intuitive experience which we call our cashflow planner, which essentially can take a look at not just your historical cashflow, but what are the events that are coming up in your future.
And below that very simple experience, there’s a bunch of really sophisticated AI happening. The first of which is what are all the events and how often do they happen? So just some predictability around when does your payroll land? What are your expenses? How much do they recur? What does that look like for other folks in your industry? So starting to extrapolate at that surface level. But then below that, there are many things that trigger cashflow events for small businesses: take taxes, which is a big one. That is a terrible surprise at the end of a quarter or the end of the year. And when you put AI to work, it can look at those transactions and based off of its vast knowledge of all of the transactions that it’s seen like that, put it in the right tax category, it can maximize your tax savings with that decision.
And all of that AI below the surface is bubbling up to a simple visualization that shows you here’s what your cashflow is going to look like, here’s the section where you’re going to be maybe in the red or close to the red, so let’s talk about it. What are the things that we can do? Can you adjust payroll? Can you adjust your payment terms? Can you adjust your bills or have a conversation with bills you owe money to? So it’s that level of insight where, during the pandemic, AI has been doing a ton of work for small businesses. The way in which it comes to life is actually beautifully simple.
It’s a really interesting question. Whenever I work with somebody on my team that starts talking about or using the language of AI/ML in the context of talking to customers, I always stop them because I think it’s important to understand the power of AI and ML, understand the power of technology, but really what we should be focusing on is what can this technology do for you? What’s the problem that we’re trying to solve together? And obviously small businesses are faced with a tremendous number of problems, and I think it’s a great provocation of as to what are the products or the technology out there that can help me. But the exciting thing that gets me up in the morning is, and I think I even throw this somewhere on the internet as my tagline is, using technology for good, giving AI and ML to the underdogs.
And when you’re a small business, you’re competing against these huge platforms that employ massive teams of data scientists. And so what we’re trying to do at QuickBooks, and I know we’re joined by a number of other great organizations, is to give that power of a data science department to every small business, and ideally put it in their pocket. So it’s there on your phone and it will tell you when you’ve got a bad surprise around the corner, or if you want to dive in it will help have that conversation around areas that you should be thinking about. And ultimately, hopefully, to your tech transition point earlier, Brent, do a lot of that really administrative work for you. So you’re not at the end of the month of the quarter, going through boxes of receipts or paying somebody else to go through boxes of receipts for you, because, in this day and age, that is a really bad use of time and money.
Going digital while keeping the personal touch
Small Business Trends: Because of the pandemic, and it happened pretty much overnight, people who are used to going out and shopping at the grocery stores, and, like you said, the other stores, they couldn’t do it. So this whole other avenue of buying online groceries or, pretty much everything, had to happen. So you had this… kind of the opportunity for companies who were able to build those direct consumer channels because people weren’t buying in the store to try to figure out a way to build a direct relationship to customers.
Do you see that still taking place after the fact… so although the markets will open up in the … the retail stores will open up, and the mom-and-pop’s hopefully will open up, do they still have to have a way to stay connected digitally, even if things kind of go back to normal or there’s a new normal where we’re still going back into the stores?
Jon Fasoli: Yeah, absolutely. I am definitely no marketing expert by any means, but I think, in this day and age, it’s a fairly obvious statement that the conversation with your customer never ends. It may start in your store but you better believe it’s happening online, whether you’re going to be a part of it or not, it’s happening online. And I think some of the businesses that I work with that are the most successful are the one’s that aren’t just participating in conversations but creating conversations, and they’re doing that across multiple platforms, but predominantly on social media these days. [crosstalk. 00:14:21].
The one thing, though, that I know to be true is you need time to do that experimentation. And so that’s what I tell myself, at least, my purpose on earth is to give that time to small business owners by taking away the stuff that small business owners shouldn’t be worried about. You shouldn’t be worried about taxes and accounting and the financial insights that QuickBooks should be able to solve for you, deliver to you. But the experimentation around what is that digital personal touch is super exciting and I think everyone’s got a certain… a different place. One of my favorite small businesses restores vintage campers, these fiberglass campers, and she crushes it on Instagram. She has a massive following and she just started by experimenting with word of mouth, experimenting with email marketing, and eventually she landed on Instagram and started to get some really powerful feedback loops and she’s chased that, and that’s now the primary channel for her business.
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.