Finding the Way to AI…The Use Case
By Ben Dyer
This now over-worked term arose from the software industry in 1987 at the hands of Swedish computer scientist Ivar Hjalmar Jacobson. Entrepreneurs, developers, creators, and innovators wanting to capitalize on the burgeoning interest in AI have come to appreciate Mr. Jacobson’s contribution to the scientific lexicon.
In my early microcomputer days in the 70’s, there was considerable skepticism about how “toys” like the Altair could be beneficial to business. Building them from kits and making the lights blink were entertaining pastimes. Bill Gates and Paul Allen pioneered a shift in perception by creating the tools to harness the new electronic devices as the next step in the evolution of computing. My own company, Peachtree Software, added an important layer to that by offering a complete package for accounting. Business owners soon recognized that what they had been paying $200K and up for minicomputers and associated software could now be accomplished for 90% less. Customer acquisition started with retail stores and soon liaisons with the electronic brands of that era like Radio Shack. Along then came great entrepreneurs like Michael Dell to proliferate this power to the multitudes. You know the history from there. The minicomputer companies ultimately ceased to exist.
In my view the AI revolution is more significant, but it’s spreading from the top down more so than the bottom up. As I write this post, I’m seeing headlines that Walmart has equipped its 160,000 employees with AI to make them more efficient. Their jobs are getting better, and Walmart can measure the tangible profit results. On the medical front today, there is news of AI retinal scans to detect early Alzheimer’s in ways that human technicians cannot match. These too have priceless benefits derived from costly research and not from a DIY lab.
“Use case” in its 35 years+ has become table stakes for investing in new technology. If you are a startup entrepreneur aspiring to build an AI company, one might argue that your best return will be from corporate customers that bring ready-made scale to your creations. More than a few major corporations are actively soliciting potential AI use cases from their executives, managers, and workers. They may have great technology resources, but they will always have more measurable needs than can be met internally. You could be a solution for those gaps. And, if you are clever, you’ll develop proprietary advantages that you can sell to multiple customers for a genre of use cases. That’s not to say you can practice on Walmart and then try to sell an identical product to Target, but you can develop a repeatable use case specific to your company that will satisfy multiple buyers and not impinge on their proprietary requirements.
To execute such a strategy, you’ll have to master the art of the complex sale. There are plenty of books on this topic. Check out “Hope Is Not a Strategy” by Rick Page, an authority on this subject. You may not have distribution channels to sell into. You’ll need to develop your own relationships with corporations of interest. You’ll need to be visible to your target audience and exhibit leadership wherever you can. You make not make a sale every day, but you’ll make the big ones that count.
Of course, serendipity can be a strategy. One of my best wins came from showing at a random trade show where a top executive from a major corporation looked at my display and immediately said “You’ve got exactly what I want.” Within a day I had a contract. I don’t recommend that as your core strategy, but I do recommend being open to good things that happen to come your way.
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Ben Dyer is best known as the founding CEO of Peachtree Software and has been responsible for numerous startups in both Atlanta and Austin ranging from technology to financial services. He is currently an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the ATDC at Georgia Tech and spent 7 years in starting in 2011 in similar roles at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a prolific writer and has written many hundreds of blog posts on entrepreneurial topics. Among numerous honors, he is a member of the Georgia Technology Hall of Fame.