female business owner holding tablet

Ryan Stone sometimes lost business because Lambda Films, his small video production and animation studio, didn’t have a concept artist on board, someone who could translate vision to images for client approval.

But all that changed when Stone started using Midjourney, a generative artificial intelligence (AI)-based program. Generative AI generates content – images or copy – from typed prompts. Midjourney delivers images from typed text, literally bringing Stone’s vision to life. “Working in a creative industry, we have ideas in our head, and we can see them. But being able to communicate those ideas to a client can be really difficult,” Stone said. Midjourney allows Stone to move those ideas from his head to a vision board.

As a result, “the client now understands the concept you’re going for, so it’s a lot easier to sell ideas,” he said.

In its adoption of generative AI, the UK-based Lambda Films is among a small but growing segment of small businesses tapping the technology. A quarter of 1,000 U.S. – or Canada-based small business owners said they were currently using or testing generative AI tools, according to a FreshBooks May 2023 survey. In addition, two of out three said they’d try the technology in the subsequent 12 months.

SMBs’ mighty helper – from doing expense reports to writing blog posts

The relatively recent hype over AI notwithstanding, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have already been using AI-based tools without knowing it.

“Just like AI has quietly enhanced the vehicle driving experience over the last few years through automated driving or route recommendations, and without the fanfare of this being AI-powered, the same is also true for business and consumer software that leverage highly targeted machine learning models to accomplish specific tasks,” said Mike Morton, VP of Dynamics 365 Business Central, Microsoft’s business management platform for SMBs.

Case in point: “A popular use of machine learning amongst SMBs is automating expense management where photos of receipts or PDF invoices are automatically analyzed and converted to structured data, greatly reducing manual data entry,” Morton said.

AI can help in many additional ways. Chatbots based on conversational AI, for example, are a powerful tool for front-line customer service agents and ease the burden of providing round-the-clock support. And generative AI can help sales and marketing not just by creating images from text as Lambda Films’ Stone does, but by also drafting text, image, and video content for ads, social content and blog posts.

The AI advantage for small businesses

AI delivers a range of advantages to SMBs, such as:

A variety of AI-based tools can help SMB business operations. These include Jasper for content creation and marketing copy; Zapier for workflow automation; Midjourney for generating creative imagery from text; ChatGPT for research and content ideas; and Flick for social media management.

Potential pitfalls to watch for

Microsoft’s Morton cautions against over-reliance on AI tools – “AI-generated output isn’t always correct and often requires human review of the outcomes”.

“Implementing AI often requires an upfront investment that might be steep for smaller businesses,” cautions Dmytro Sokhach, Digital Entrepreneur and Founder of digital marketing firm, Admix Global. “There’s a learning curve and training period needed to effectively use AI tools. Finally, privacy and security concerns can arise, as AI systems often handle sensitive data and could become targets for cyberattacks,” he added.

There’s also some concern about whether AI-generated art can qualify as art. “As a creative business, the thinking around AI is very complex as the core values of our industry are originality and human-centered creation,” Stone acknowledges. But in Lambda Films’ case, once a project is approved, the final execution is all from the team at Lambda Films without AI. AI only serves as a tool, he says, to aid them in making more sales.

Ticketmaster’s Louis agrees and points out AI only delivers an “elevated starting point.” Just like students know not to regurgitate CliffsNotes on an exam, “SMBs shouldn’t be leaning solely on AI output but instead use that output to work smarter,” he said.

The note of caution notwithstanding, SMBs can’t afford to ignore the growing versatility of AI, sources said. “It’s no longer a secret sauce but something to bake into every reasonable element of your business in order to increase efficiency in the way you’re operating,” Louis said.

Using AI doesn’t guarantee positive results. But there are occasional encouraging signs. Case in point: A few months ago, Lambda Films used Midjourney to win one of its biggest projects to date.