November 15, 2016 in Strategy

So, you think you need custom software. Everyone’s doing it, and you’re wondering if it’s time to take the plunge.

But you’re also a little afraid this might be a case of “If all your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump, too?”

The custom software question is a big one for all growing companies. It’s expensive, but there’s usually a tipping point at which the ROI becomes worth the upfront costs. The question is, how do you know?

While there are a lot of moving parts in making such a big decision, it really comes down to process and commitment. Are you truly familiar with your process, and are you ready to commit to owning software?

Defining Your Software Needs

The first question you need to ask yourself is, “What do I really need this software to do?” Maybe it’s an internal process or a customer-facing app, but either way, you need a clear idea of the features and benefits of any piece of software.

Off-the-shelf (OTS) software is the way to go if you aren’t clear on those. One of the benefits of OTS software is the ability to help define processes. (It’s also one of the cons, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

If you are still new to the space, or if the particular process you want to automate is not yet fully defined, chances are good you aren’t the first person to have this problem or need this solution. An off-the-shelf solution will help you define the process and develop a workflow that would be too overwhelming to develop from scratch.

But…

Remember how we said that process-defining ability is a pro and a con? OTS solutions are rigid. Good if you need to define process. Bad if you have outgrown the prescribed workflow.

Let’s take Shopify as an example. Shopify is a robust e-commerce solution that equips a lot of e-commerce businesses. It’s a great solution because of easy integrations and lots of features. As an OTS platform, it’s one we highly recommend in the right circumstances.

It’s not perfect, though. One of the biggest issues Shopify customers experience is the inability to set up recurring payments for customers. Bundling products and easy organization of the front-end are also concerns.

Shopify is just one example of an OTS solution that is great in the early days but is likely to be outgrown over time.

Let’s say you’ve been working with just such an OTS solution for awhile now, and you’re beginning to find its limitations. Maybe it doesn’t give you the freedom your team wants, or it doesn’t perform one little function you’ve discovered you really, really need. What now?

At this point, you can reach out to the company providing your solution and request the feature you need. The problem is, if that feature doesn’t meet the needs of most of their clients–or doesn’t make sense for them financially–you won’t ever solve your issue.

You could also cobble together another third party solution to that one issue and incorporate it into your workflow. This might work beautifully, and you’re off to the races.

Until it doesn’t. Third party software doesn’t always play nice, and you could quickly discover that nothing will integrate seamlessly. Even if you make it work, this cobbling together of solutions will eventually become cumbersome and time-consuming.

While an OTS software is a great way to get started in something new or unfamiliar, once you define your own processes, you’ll probably discover that you need something custom. The bellwether question to ask:

Is my team actually using the software?

If you have a great team in place, and they are constantly dragging their feet to use the software at their disposal, chances are really good that it’s no longer working for them.

Making The Commitment to Custom Software

Let’s be very clear about this: custom software is a long term commitment. It’s expensive on the front end, and you have to budget time and money to maintain and iterate it over time.

That said, much like when you find the right life partner, that long term commitment isn’t scary as much as it is exciting.

With a custom software solution, you will exercise full control because it’s literally made for you. That means you define the features you need instead of the software dictating what you can do. With the right development team, you’ll be able to iterate quickly when it’s time to innovate or update.

Custom software will likely save you time and productivity over the long haul, and as your software gets older, you’ll also need to commit to caring for it. There’s regular maintenance required with any product, but there’s also the need to stay on top of user needs.

But, honestly, there’s regular maintenance and licensing fees with OTS solutions as well. The beauty of investing this money in custom software is that you can build it just for you and your team/users. As needs change, you won’t be beholden to the OTS you’ve always used. Instead, you can adapt your own software as your needs adapt.

The upkeep of a custom software solution never ends, but there is a tipping point where even that upkeep is more cost-effective than inefficient cobbled together solutions.

No really…how do I know?

Okay, so there are lots of pros and cons to both OTS and custom software. When you’re at the decision point, how do you know when to pull the trigger?

Here are 10 ways to know you’re a good candidate for custom software:

  • You’ve tried the best off-the-shelf solutions and still need more.
  • Your current custom software has stopped meeting your needs.
  • You know going custom will give you a true competitive advantage.
  • You spend a significant amount of time and budget on adapting an OTS solution.
  • You know building custom software is expensive, but you also know it will eventually save you time and money if you do it right.
  • You’ve got the budget to build at least a portion of what you need. (Stay tuned for a guide to custom software pricing.)
  • You’ve got buy-in from all the necessary stakeholders.
  • You are committed to maintaining the software over the long haul.
  • Your business model demands custom software (i.e. the custom software IS your business.)
  • You’ve exhausted all other options. No, we really mean ALL other options.

Building custom software–whether you hire developers or outsource to a vendor–is an intense, expensive experience. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is for anyone who is ready to level up their processes, either internally or for your customers.

If you’ve read all of this, and we haven’t scared you off, you might be ready to dive into the deep end of custom software.