The number of places business owners can turn to for advice and mentoring is growing all the time. These days, there are small business and startup meetups, events, incubators, accelerator programs and business coaches, all aimed at helping people more effectively manage their business.
Unfortunately, finding the time to get that advice can be a challenge.
One Australian entrepreneur thinks he’s got the solution that time-poor business people are looking for, and is developing a Siri-style artificial intelligence (AI) app called BRiN that will provide business advice to busy business owners.
Entrepreneur Dale Beaumont launched a business advice app called BRiN at the beginning of 2015 as a spin-off of the face-to-face business coaching and events company called Business Blueprint.
From business coaching to AI
Currently, the app has a selection of around 1000 business coaching videos focusing on everything from sales and social media through to doing business in China and human resources.
In the next three to six months, Beaumont said, he is planning to add a Siri-style digital agent to the app that can answer business questions and provide advice to entrepreneurs.
“You'll be able to click a button and say: 'Can you tell me how to put together a balance sheet?', 'What is accounts receivable?' or 'How do I market my business?' and it will go to our library of content and pull up the best answer,” Beaumont told BIT.
“What we do is give people a short answer, and then ask people if they would like to receive more training on it. If they say yes, we search our library of more than 500 videos and it will pull up the most appropriate videos to watch.”
Over the longer term, Beaumont said he plans to integrate the BRiN platform with a range of other online business services, including Xero, Salesforce and Google Analytics.
“We want to get to a point in the future where you can ask 'how many people came to my website yesterday' and it will be able to find that information and speak it back to you,” he said.
Despite the growing number of small business and startup events and services, Beaumont claims many business owners do not have a regular opportunity to seek guidance from a mentor or advisor.
“The problem that we're solving is just 1 percent of business owners – in Australia there's 2 million – have monthly access to a business advisor. Where they can sit down to get help and support for their business?”
How the app is being developed
Beaumont said part of the development process was surveying around 300 business owners to come up with a list of the 5000 most commonly asked business questions, and BRiN will be trained to answer those questions.
“We now have a team of writers who write answer these 5000 questions that are hopefully going to cover 90 percent of what a business owner is going to want to know,” Beaumont said.
“If it doesn't know an answer, it can say 'I just checked and I don't know the answer to the question, however I can answer for you within the next 24 hours'.
“We then have a human look at that question, type up an answer, and the next they log in to the app it will say 'I can now give you an answer...'. That becomes answer 5001. So as time goes by, we'll be able to answer more questions.”
While he has not opened up the app's AI component yet, Beaumont said that he has shown the user interface and to a number of business owners and the feedback has been positive.
“I have been showing a lot of business owners the UX and UI, and been surveying the questions they want to know. We're doing internal testing, but the results have been very positive,” Beaumont said.
Of course, as anyone who has used Siri, Google Now or Microsoft Cortana will no doubt attest, there are certainly some technical limitations to what digital assistants at this stage can do – especially when it comes to speech recognition.
Beaumont acknowledges that there are some parts of the app he will be able to improve and some he can't, and that while test-to-speech technologies are constantly improving, he’s somewhat at the mercy of the limits of technology.
“If a child laughs, it might not be able to determine the difference between a child's voice and an adult voice, or if someone has a thick Russian accent it's going to struggle. That's just the nature of technology, but it's getting better all the time,” Beaumont said.
“In the past, when you had a voice engine, you used to have to train it, but the likes of Google and Microsoft are now smart enough that you don't have to train it and it gets it right most of the time. Then, when it comes to the answer, we need to make sure our content library is large enough to provide answers.”
Lessons for others making the transition
Perhaps a bit ironically, going from running a fairly traditional industry such as business coaching to the cutting edge of technology has itself taught Beaumont a couple of lessons in business.
“The AI space is incredibly challenging if you're not a technical founder, which I'm not – I don't come from a technology background,” Beaumont said.
“I've found companies building AIs in North America – one for financial advice and another one for a talking toy – and we've been networking with them, brainstorming together and looked to each other for advice.
“My advice is to ask for help, and keep asking questions and researching, because the landscape is changing very quickly.”