Intuit CEO Brad Smith still thinks his 34-year-old accounting and tax software company functions like a startup. At Intuit's "Intelligent Economy" event in New York City this week, the company threw all sorts of emerging tech against the wall. Booths lining the event floor exhibited demos on artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), chatbot interfaces, blockchain, and virtual reality (VR) within the context of making everyday tasks simpler and less stressful for Intuit's core customer base—consumers, self-employed workers, and small business owners.
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"We are a fintech company. We focus on finance and compliance and we don't kid ourselves. Very few people wake up excited about taxes, paying bills, and doing their books," said Smith. "We stay laser-focused on [customers'] problems, but we apply whatever technology is the most contemporary of the day to get those problems out of the way."
Intuit packed 26 different product and experimental tech demos into the event. The demos spanned the company's entire product portfolio, including QuickBooks, Mint.com, TurboTax. On the small business front, the company also demonstrated a newly announced integration between QuickBooks and Google G Suite, showed off the conversational user interface (UI) in its QuickBooks Assistant chatbot experience, and walked through how ML algorithms are working behind the scenes to make Intuit applications more contextual and efficient.
All-In-One Small Business Software
Intuit announced two integrations between QuickBooks and Google G Suite, which puts QuickBooks functionality directly inside Gmail and a Google Calendar integration directly within QuickBooks, respectively. The Gmail integration gives users a QuickBooks button within Gmail to pull up an invoicing tab pre-populated with that Gmail contact's information. The Google Calendar integration reverses that workflow, giving users a Google Calendar pop-up within the QuickBooks UI where they can check off all of the hours for which they need to invoice, synced with their Google Calendar appointments. This provides a fast path to a fairly flexible, sophisticated workflow that SMBs can configure in minutes almost entirely through the web.
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There are more than 450 apps in the QuickBooks App Store. Sasan Goodarzi, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Intuit's Small Business Group, said these integrations are indicative of the native experience Intuit aims to create. The Google G Suite integration demo was right next to a demo for Intuit's Bill.com integration, which gives users a "Do you want to pay with QuickBooks?" option built into the experience, without any manual integration on the small business' end.
"Our strategy is building a platform that brings the power of all the applications they would ever need to use into their hands. One- and two-person shops need the ability to compete, both locally and with bigger players," said Goodarzi.
"Anybody can integrate applications," he continued. "Rather than having to go to an app store and deal with downloads and data syncing, we integrate it as part of the platform. So, as you're in QuickBooks using the application, if you've integrated TSheets or Bill.com, you can click the 'Pay My Bill' button in QuickBooks as part of that interface, with the Bill.com engine running behind the scenes. Whether it's TSheets, Bill.com, or American Express, we give you the ability to send Joe and Jack a reminder to pay you on time, or ask about a loan based on your own payables."
Goodarzi also explained how the company's ML development plays into that all-in-one contextual platform experience. He said Intuit started applying ML and AI three or four years ago. He said the company now hold more than 30 patents and over 100 pending patents related to ML algorithms and AI, which exists beneath the surface of Intuit's apps. Regarding QuickBooks, TurboTax, and other apps in the Intuit portfolio, Goodarzi talked about what the company does with the data it gathers in each.
"We have millions of customers that use our platform. We know a lot about flower shops like [yours] or plumbing businesses like yours. Our strategy is to unlock the knowledge and the insights we have to help you do the basics and make more money," explained Goodarzi. "Our goal is to integrate the most important applications in such a way that it just becomes a part of your workflow. The more of your data that's in one place, the more we learn about your business and the more we can give you insights."
The more people that use AI, the smarter it gets, according to Goodarzi. "You always have control to change things like automatic categorization, but we apply machine learning to do the work for you," he said. "So, in TurboTax, based on your behavior, we might suggest whether or not you should accept specific deductions. Or, depending on how much data you've given us, we know you've already received the maximum deductions. Last year, we reduced time to file tax returns by 40 percent because we applied machine learning to let you know you've gotten your maximum deductions."
Touring Intuit's Experimental Future
Intuit's Innovation and Advanced Technologies division is playing around with just about every buzzy tech trending in the tech world right now. Walking around the Intelligent Economy gallery, I stopped at demo stations on blockchain, AI and chatbots, wearables, ML and Big Data, and VR. Some demos were undeniably gimmicky, but they all fell somewhere between amusingly interesting to surprisingly innovative.
Blockchain: Intuit is experimenting with blockchain as a way to aggregate data from multiple parties in a permissioned environment that ensures data privacy and secure digital identity management. The company is building a private blockchain distribution on Ethereum, and showed a demo in which Intuit pulled in blockchain-based data from the US Office of Vital Records, the US Post Office, and medical information from your doctor. Intuit is using blockchain for secure smart contract-based data transaction and audit logs but isn't actually storing the data on blockchain.
Chatbots: Similar to the conversational messaging UIs you find on Facebook Messenger, Skype, and other platforms, Intuit demonstrated how the QuickBooks Assistant can help you keep track of small business finances. By using natural language queries, entrepreneurs can message back and forth with the bot about how much they're owed, what bills are due, what invoices they need to send, etc.
ML: In Intuit apps such as TurboTax, the company is combining anonymized customer data with ML algorithms to build a knowledge graph beneath the tax return experience. TurboTax can now predict whether a customer will be a standard filer and guide them away from entering itemized deductions; it does this by asking a specific progression of questions and predicting numeric values. The AI algorithms also provide natural language "ExplainWhy" explanations and recommendations that break down your earnings, deductions, dependents, and how your refund was calculated.
VR: At the VR station, I strapped on an HTC Vive to experience a prototype VR app for small business owners. I found myself in a 3D oasis of sorts (complete with rolling green hills and a rushing waterfall) in which a calming voice explained that each of the trees around me represented different aspects of my small business finances. Those aspects included customers, inventory, marketing, net profit, and an actual river of cash flow.
Touching a particular tree in the 360-degree experience brought up charts and data visualizations that broke down particular finances. This was undeniably the most gimmicky demo I experienced but, for a topic that tends to stress out small business owners, Intuit did their best with VR to make it tranquil and serene.
Wearables: Intuit also showed off a new version of its Mint.com app, built for an Apple Watch. The app includes bill-pay tools and credit score analysis within the pared down Mint wearable experience, giving you quick data points on payment history and credit lines.