Al Ko of Intuit: How We’re Helping Small Businesses Fight Entrepreneurial Loneliness

According to an Intuit study, 41 percent of entrepreneurs feel a sense of loneliness during their pursuit of starting and building a small business.

Albert Ko, VP of Product Management for Intuit, shares with us what the company is doing to help small businesses get past those feelings, bring more exposure to small businesses, and provide greater financing opportunities to grow.

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Al Ko HeadshotSmall Business Trends: Maybe you can give us a little bit of your personal background.

Albert Ko: I’ve been at Intuit for a little over nine years — almost all of that on the product side helping design our products through the input of our customers.

I currently lead the product team for our small business division that includes Quickbooks, the payments and payroll solutions. And excited to share the message of the importance of small businesses and celebrating the success as we take Quickbooks Connect Local on the road.

Small Business Trends: Is small business more of a force in the global economy today? Or is it about the same? But where does small business stand from a global perspective?

Albert Ko: Yeah, it’s funny you ask that. I’m sitting here in my hotel room in Australia and I would say the global trends for small business are remarkably similar to that of the U.S. And the vast majority of job growth — upwards of 70, 80 percent of new jobs created — are created by small businesses. Frankly, the backbone of any global economy and GDP is based on small business activity.

Intuit obviously serves small businesses. That’s our bread and butter and we’ve decided to really double down. Not just on the capabilities, features and services of Quickbooks, payments and payroll tools small businesses know, use and love. But really thinking about how do we enable small business success more broadly, and how do we celebrate that success is where we’ve really decided to double down.

Small Business Trends: We all know technology is a huge driver of productivity, efficiency and over the last several years, the ability for customers to drive the conversation they’re having with businesses they frequent. Do you think that small businesses are really taking advantage of the possibilities technology is putting in front of them? Are they using it more efficiently than they have in the past?

Albert Ko: Yeah, that’s a great question. Let me answer it in the following way, with a couple of specific examples. I would say small businesses have the opportunity now with mobile to do things they never could just a few years ago and really catch up and leap frog large businesses.

And we know virtually everyone is already on their cell phones to do business to some degree. And yet, only 20 percent of small businesses state they use mobile as the primary way to grow their business.

Another one we’ve been trying to evangelize is being in the cloud. Today any business can be connected and reach customers worldwide, anytime, anywhere, on any device. And yet we know that only a small minority of small businesses have really embraced the cloud.

Obviously, you hear of all the technology startups that have done so. But there are opportunities for even mom and pop businesses in any community to embrace these capabilities that are highly cost effective and highly scalable should they choose to do so.

Small Business Trends: So, I know a lot of small businesses really depend on Intuit and Quickbooks to handle very important pieces of their business. But how do you help them move into the cloud in a more meaningful way and maybe in more numbers. It seems like sometimes we forget and think everybody’s in the cloud at this point. But it sounds like that’s definitely not the case. So how does a company like Intuit help with that?

Albert Ko: Just last week we announced that Quickbooks Online reached one million subscribers worldwide. And that’s a pretty incredibly milestone. But just a couple of years ago that number was virtually zero, and everyone was on the desktop product.

And I ought to be clear, people loved the desktop product and we are excited to continue to support it – but ultimately people vote with their feet in terms of the solutions that they desire: always on, accessible on any device, do things very simply in mobile.

The access and connection to thousands of third-party developer applications that integrate with Quickbooks – all of these things become really, really powerful tools that the desktop solutions simply don’t have because the technology has moved.

So, that’s just one example of where we’re trying to make these solutions available.

But there’s a huge educational element. So if you go on our website we try to do a lot of education on the benefits of the cloud. Not so much just for our own offerings, but in terms of how small businesses should carry themselves and their business with respect to technology.

Small Business Trends: Talk a little bit about why you’re coming to Atlanta June 25th and what kind of news that you’re bringing to small businesses in these local events.

Albert Ko: First of all, Quickbooks Connect (a series of live events) is engaging with small businesses, accountants, developers — in person — to help them start, run and grow their businesses. And so the cornerstones of what we want to celebrate are the following:

This is going to be a funny stat, but 41 percent of small businesses say that they feel lonely. And what they mean by that is that they’re looking for advice. They don’t feel like they know where to go to get information they need from people like them. And that’s where the lonely part comes in. Well we’re launching what we’re calling the Own-It Network. And you’ll certainly get a lot more details at the Atlanta conference. It’s going to be a small business community where thousands, and ultimately even more, businesses can get on, meet people like them, have questions answered, contribute answers and continue the conversation.

Small Business Trends: How does Intuit go about making sure that this kind of community is one that will be helpful for the long-term? We’ve seen communities come and go, so from a small business person’s perspective, how does this community help over the long-term?

Albert Ko: is deliberately just a small business community. It’s not something that is talking about Quickbooks or anything.

For example, there’s a question for small businesses from a small business that asks, “How do you get referrals?” And there’s a bunch of conversations from other businesses as well as experts who are having a conversation about that, and what they’ve done and what they’ve seen that’s effective in enabling referrals, etc., etc.

And so I think the answer is, you only go back to these communities if it’s valuable for you. And what we’ve seen is that ultimately, active engagement is driven by people who want to not only consume content, but frankly contribute content. And so we’re trying to make it easy for you to feel right at home, and actually really contribute content.

Small Business Trends: Very good.

Albert Ko: The second big pillar of our announcement is the renewal of “Small Business – Big Game”, and we’re all-in on enabling a lucky small business a TV commercial at the biggest game of the year. Obviously, this is such a fun event, but also a game-changing opportunity for a lifetime.

We want to highlight small businesses and help drive the media focus. They’re small in scale, and they’re never in The Wall Street Journal. But they’re incredible stories and so we want to give them access to connections, inspiration and the resources they need to succeed.

And so this campaign is going to have a lot of incredible elements and prizes — not just for the one small business who’s going to have a life-changing event with the typical commercial — but multiple different prizes and opportunities to be recognized at the community level and frankly nationally on social.

These challenges begin from now through August 7, and we’ll have a lot more details that we’re going to share. But we’re very excited about it.

One other detail we’re going to announce is we know that two-thirds of businesses are rejected when they seek funding — loans they need to expand their business or just pay for a palette of goods or trying to hire somebody.

And we have an offering that’s already live called Quickbooks Financing, that we’ve reversed that ratio where instead of two-thirds of folks being rejected, two-thirds of small businesses are part of this program and are approved because we use data that is better than just the FICO score typically used by a bank or credit union to make these decisions.

We’ve got a big announcement coming up, again, as part of the Quickbooks Connect to dramatically expand the funding available for these small businesses that we think is going to be a game changer. And again, as you can see here, whether it’s the Own It Network, whether it’s the Small Business Big Game commercial or whether it’s this funding, it’s really a focus on celebrating small business success and helping the little guy have all the advantages that a lot of large companies enjoy.

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.


Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.

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