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Costly, “free” AI can be.

Updated: Mar 9

Over the last six months I’ve participated in dozens of initial evaluations and consult calls with SMBs considering the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Some of the calls were to add AI to their customer facing products and services, others to use AI within their organization.


In the vast majority of these calls I have heard at least one or more of these below:


  • “We are dabbling with the free version of [insert here free AI app trial].”

  • “We are not sure if AI is for us, so we are experimenting with [insert here AI app trial] for now, and we’ll see. I think we can make it work.”

  • “A few folks in sales [insert here any department] are using the free version of [insert here free AI app version] to do their work. They are putting a lot of effort into it!”

  • “Why would I pay to use AI in the corporation when I can get [AI app name] for free?”


The last statement launches without fail this train of thought which runs its course in less than five seconds flat:


  • Your BD executive has a base of $125K, which converts to burdened cost of at least $100/hr.

  • They spend 20 minutes to craft the copy of one email, an additional 20 minutes to generate an AI image, formatting it after it’s created and then taking it to your CRM in no less than 15 minutes. 

  • Then they have to adjust the template, verify the copy complies with the brand guidelines, and if they are lucky and are authorized to release the email without further review, they are $75 in the creation of one email, using their free AI tools.

  • You have three BDM’s in your sales team, and they do this process each at least 2 times a day…


Yeah, your trial is free, but your real cost is now at least $9K / month, before we even account for opportunity cost.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for pursuing thorough due diligence at minimal cost when considering new processes, technology implementations, or new strategies. 100% onboard with that. Nothing wrong with free; except when it is not.


Dabbling time can be wasted time.

I can’t over emphasize how important it is for SMBs to move past “dabbling” into  thoughtful implementation. AI is neither fad, nor silver bullet. AI is “equalizing” technology, that when well implemented and integrated to business workflows, can help SMBs compete with their larger, more mature and staffed competitors. 


Here are four recommendations to consider so that “Free AI” doesn’t become doesn’t become a substantial yet hidden cost in your operations.

  • Start with your business plan.

    • Identify within it the initiatives that could benefit the most, and within those, the specific processes that can be improved; like bottlenecks or inefficiencies that are known, but have not been solved.

    • When you focus your efforts, you avoid “free” AI applications become a solution looking for a problem. Focus your efforts first, and then by all means, try the free versions of the apps that are relevant to your need.

  • Put some rails and limits on dabbling.

    • A statement of work (SOW) is your friend; especially when you are going to dabble. 

    • Referring to the business plan, limit the scope of the experimentation so that your opportunity cost doesn’t haunt you.

    • Outline clearly the entry and exit points of the evaluation, so that you can identify is the free apps you are evaluating will deliver (whether paid or free) the results you need.

  • Make a timely decision

    • If you have a plan and sow for the evaluation, make a decision on the application or features you need to use in order to achieve your goals.

    • Determine as well, who will lead the implementation efforts inclusive of the procedures that will govern use, and how the application will be integrated to the business’ technical stack.

  • Implement with integration in mind

    • Free versions of AI apps are sometimes as powerful as and feature rich as you need them to be. The challenge may come at times when you have to integrate them to your business workflows.  No one wants to use a free application, that results in substantial manual labor in order to get the work done.



In the words of Yoda: “Do, or do not; there is no try.” Consider the options and leverage free, but don’t be limited or impacted by exploring and limiting yourself for that which you can get for free. 



Free or subscription based, there is a lot of benefit that AI can bring to your business when well implemented so it truly saves your team effort and time.

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