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Harvard Business School A.I. guru on why every Main Street shop should start using ChatGPT

Story by: Eric Rosenbaum
  • Every small business owner should be using some combination of generative AI tools, including OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Microsoft’s AI-powered Bing search engine, and Poe, says Harvard Business School professor Karim Lakhani.
  • Gen AI offers small business owners a cost-effective way to become more productive and efficient in scaling their company, communicating with customers, and generating marketing, social media and new products.
  • Lakhani says the oldest adage in computer science about AI and fear of job losses holds for small businesses: the business owners that use AI will replace those that don’t.

The sudden rise of generative artificial intelligence has led the biggest technology companies in the world to invest billions. For $20 a month, every small business can get started in gen A.I. use that may ultimately prove to be a difference maker in the cost of their operations and the scale of the company they want to grow.

That’s the message from Karim Lakhani, a Harvard Business School professor who has been studying technology for 30 years and says the oldest adage about AI in computer science will be as true on Main Street as it is in Silicon Valley.


“Machines won’t replace humans, but humans with machines will replace humans without machines,” Lakhani said at CNBC’s Small Business Playbook virtual event on Wednesday.

For small business owners, Lakhani said, the AI journey should begin by looking across three platforms: OpenAI’s ChatGPT+ (which can be purchased for $20 a month), Microsoft’s Bing Chat (which is free) and Poe, which offers access to a variety of gen AI tools. Starting to experiment with these tools will quickly show small business owners the power that AI offers to their core tasks.

He cited three areas in particular:

  1. All consumer contact.
  2. As a thought partner for new business ideas.
  3. As a “super assistant” being able to handle much of the “drudgery” owners face alone today.

While there has been criticism of gen AI for “hallucinations,” i.e., inaccurate results in search, Lakhani said business owners should not be distracted by this. It’s a real issue, but it’s not the important example that applies to how small businesses will start taking advantage of the tools.

“I think about ChatGPT as a thought partner, lowering the cost of cognition and new ideas,” Lakhani said.


One example: a venture capitalist in California who was working with immigrant owners of lawncare and fencing businesses. The owners did not have great English skills, and it could be costly to use translation services for customer communication campaigns, from email to text. “Now these entrepreneurs can put their ‘broken English’ into ChatGPT and get perfect Harvard or Oxford English, any English you want. Now they had this superpower,” he said.

The same business logic is true for an e-commerce vendor on a platform like Shopify looking to translate a website into multiple languages for other markets, which could be costly with traditional translation services.

AI and handling irate customers

Small business owners can take irate customer emails that need to be addressed and ask ChatGPT for options on how to best handle, and have a series of bullet points ready to go to calm down the customers. “It will come up with options,” Lakhani said.

And the same goes for positive customer communications. “Enabling workers to have ChatGPT will help in all marketing copy,” he said. “Including ChatGPT in that process will be good and efficient,” he said.

When small businesses need to come up with social media campaigns across Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok, ChatGPT can generate “amazingly implementable ideas,” Lakhani said. “It is thinking back with you.”

And that should be extended to gen AI image generation tools too, such as Midjourney, DALL-E, and Stability AI.

Ultimately, Lakhani says, AI will prove critical to three keys for business success: scaling, scoping and continually learning. It is about how many more customers you can serve, how many more products and services you can create, and how business owners keep learning. “The operating model, how you deliver value, can be supercharged,” he said.

Where to begin AI learning

The place to start, according to Lakhani, is YouTube.

“YouTube is your friend. I can’t tell you how much I’ve benefited as this revolution has happened. … I have been spending so much time on YouTube. There are great creators who spend all their time and effort thinking about problems and solutions through ChaGPT and gen AI. Start to build a crash course on YouTube. It has a great AI algo to guide you along the way,” he said.

The key is getting started and practice. “You need to learn how to practice it, and know its great benefits, but its limitations,” he said.

In his own life as an academic, Lakhani says he thinks about gen AI as his thought partner, sparring partner and copy editor. “ChatGPT never gets mad at me for changing my mind, for asking it ten million things,” he said. But having an AI become a thought partner can only occur through practice, and unlike big businesses encumbered by bureaucracies, small businesses have the advantage of being nimble and being able to start on this AI journey without any friction or delay.

“ChatGPT is the Ironman suit,” Lakhani said. “Tony Stark is not a superhero or a god. He is just a human being. This is what gen AI and AI tools can do for every worker. It’s your AI power suit. … A team of 10 can have a footprint of 1,000,” he said.

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