Custom software or Off-the-shelf – what to choose?

Author Viktor Crnogorac
Category Development
Date Nov 05, 2018
7 min read

Digital transformation of companies is no longer some buzzword. It’s an absolute necessity for any company looking to grow, optimize processes and resources, and to gain an upper hand on their competitors.

With that in mind, many companies encounter business challenges that need digital solutions in order to be resolved. Some of these challenges are not that unique or to be more precise, they are very typical for an industry and there are often existing solutions that can help. On the other hand, some business challenges are terribly specific and complex, and require an investment of both time and money to be resolved.

Say you have a small online business creating and selling handmade jewellery. You could look for an agency to build a powerful online shop for you, or you could go with a far more economically viable option and use off-the-shelf platforms for selling goods that can be integrated into sites in a matter of minutes.

However, some business issues are not as clear cut, and are in fact derived out of very unique challenges within your company. In these situations, you will rarely find an existing solution that will aide you completely. Some will also require you to invest a lot more in order to customize it, and that will leave you with a Frankenstein-like solution that is neither effective nor yours.

In these situations, companies would be advised to find a company that builds digital products, and that can help them define the challenge, create in-depth analysis and provide them a tailored solution.

But how do you know what’s the correct approach for you?

There is no “simple” formula, but these questions might come in handy when deciding.

1. What issue is my business experiencing? How big is this problem for me?

Make sure YOU have a completely clear understanding of the business challenge you are facing. How is it affecting efficiency and productivity? Will a software solution make a process at your company easier and quicker to handle, thus saving you time and money? Is this problem causing members of your team to be frustrated or, even worse, to jump boat?

Sometimes the effects of not reacting can be catastrophic, but even more catastrophic would be to know that the issue could have been resolved at reasonable costs.

Be very aware of the magnitude of the problem. Many simple issues can be resolved with off-the-shelf solutions, but sometimes the problem at hand might involve numerous departments, specific legislation and processes, and it is only natural that a non-custom solution cannot cover the specifics of your organisation and those of other organisations.

2. How am I currently solving the problem?

What is currently being done to resolve the challenge? Are you using an off-the-shelf solution and if so, what is not satisfactory about it?

Let’s say you have numerous employees that you need to delegate tasks to, and track the completion. You could use email or tasks list in Google Drive – that could possibly be enough for you. As an alternative, you might purchase a project management tool and pay a monthly fee per employee – this is more likely the better approach for most teams.

If you tested several options and found that none of them completely (or at least mostly) covered your needs, you will most likely be frustrated and your problem will… well… remain a problem.

In these cases you should absolutely consider a custom software and start talking with a digital production company. A good first step would be to provide an overview of the solutions you have used thus far, from the most primitive to the most advanced. Be honest about the advantages and disadvantages, think about the functionalities you were missing or those that you had but only interfered with the use.

Use all these inputs to the build the blueprint of a custom software with your production company – it’s a huge and crucial step in the process towards success.

3. What kind of urgency is involved?

Is a quick solution really the best approach or do you think that, in the long run, it makes more sense to build a complete solution? What will happen if the problem is not solved urgently?

I would say that good sub-questions would be if the issue is causing you to lose money – there is certainly urgency behind that. If the issue is not urgent, but is still an important part of your company strategy, it would probably be better to approach the situation with a long term view in mind and build a smart solution that will nip future problems in the bud.

Creating a custom software takes time, from a few months to over a year of intense work. So if you, for example, urgently need an app to get people to sign up to a business event next Friday through your website – there are ready-made solution you can integrate on your site.

If, on the other hand, you are generally looking to create a solution through which you can: create conferences, define keynotes, organise transportation and hotel needs, create speaker profiles and handle sign ups…then you might need a custom solution like the one we created for Hartmann.

It’s a powerful web tool that allows the Hartmann team to do just that through an easy to use interface that can be tailored towards the specifics of each conference.

4. How involved do I want to be and how ready am I to grow the tool I will be using?

Most ready-made solutions don’t really require much “sweat” from your side. Your responsibility is to pay the monthly fee (or whatever the pricing model is) and use the tool with you team. Let’s say you are using Slack for team collaboration. After you setup the account and channels, there is not much thinking you will be doing later on, apart from some initial on-boarding.

Imagine now that you wanted to build your own version of a communication and collaboration tool (yes, there are companies that would benefit from such). Clearly this kind of solution would take quite a long time to create and handle, and the cost would be quite significant in comparison to the fees Slack has.

If you have a similar case and think you would need a custom solution, than you have to be aware of the investment at hand. This investment is not only in the sense of dollars, but also in terms of your time and effort.

5. Will you or somebody on your team be available to test and recommend improvements
on the tool after it has launched?

The dedication of yourself or team members will strongly dictate the success of a custom software solution, but the end result will most likely be a winning solution that no other organisation will have.

A good example is Performance Fact, a company we work with. They aim to facilitate and improve the way schools create academic strategies, plan the school year and organise their time and resources. By going digital and creating a custom software, Performance Fact has achieved massive improvements in the way they sell their services, share their tools and materials.

But that’s not all! The custom software that was created is the direct result of a multitude of conversations between us, Performance Fact and their clients. All of these user inputs, quirks, pain points and pleasure points allow us to work with the client and continually improve the tool. That’s something that would probably not be possible had the client initially opted for an off-the-shelf solution. Custom software is a living proof that specific challenges of the target group have been taken into consideration. This, together with the client’s consulting work, allows him to build trust and credibility as well as grow his business. A win-win scenario for all.

6. How much money am I prepared to invest, and how much am I saving in the long run?

Many tools that are available online have affordable pricing models with monthly costs ranging somewhere in the vicinity of a few lattes. On the other hand, when such a solution is not enough, you have to go in the direction of a custom solution.

Custom solutions cost significantly more, but that makes sense. Custom solutions will most likely require you to invest anywhere from tens of thousands of dollar up to well..some massive numbers depending on the overall scope of the project, technologies used or the level of specialist that will dedicate their time. After all, you are getting a personalised solution that a team of business strategists, designers and developers envisioned and produced.

However, “cost” isn’t just a one-time thing. How long will you be using this solution and how many people in your organisation will use it? Do you anticipate the “tool” will grow and require new functionalities? Does the total potential cost of a custom solution outweigh the cost of ignoring the problem and doing things as they have been done so far?

If your answers to the above is somewhere along the lines of: “Well 6 to 10 team members would be using the tool, we would probably need to integrate our distribution at some point and if we do not implement the tool this year, we will probably lose 100k”

…then a custom solution is the only way for you to proceed.

Do you have an example of your own?

Yes, we do. At Bornifght, we have used several external time tracking tools. They were “satisfactory” in the sense that they did perform what they were intended for. Some cost more than others, other are better designed.

However, an issue we had with all of them was that they did not give us the flexibility to collect, analyze data and produce reports that were relevant to the specifics of Croatian legislation and the needs of our finance team.

With that in mind, we created our own time-tracking browser-based tool – Vremenco!

It covers the basics of adding projects, connected tasks and budgets, but it also allows us to generate detailed reports that ensure we have transparent and realistic picture of our productivity and profitability on each project.

Also, bear in mind that, yes, we invested our time to design and build this tool (that is a bunch of non billable man-hours), but in the long run we saved money and we also have a custom, one of a kind solution that completely meets our needs

OK, but I’m still not sure what’s right for me

That’s fine, it is not always an easy question. Get in touch with us, and we’ll look together at your business environment and challenges. Chances are that we have met a similar challenge in the past, and that we can quickly get an idea of the direction and scope we can expect.

We will learn from our conversations and tell you directly and transparently if the challenge you have is already covered by an existing solution or if we should sit down and start creating your unique software.