One of the oldest debates for businesses that use software is the question of “buy versus build.”
On the one hand, you have off-the-shelf or software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings which are tried and true and spread the cost for their development across hundreds or even thousands of customers. The other option is to create custom software built to your exact specifications, but this can be daunting.
So, how are you supposed to know when which one is right for you?
How Trailhead Thinks About Buy-vs-Build
Like most either/or choices, we believe this one is a false dichotomy. In reality, most large organizations are buying AND building different components of their software solutions.
At Trailhead Technology Partners, we’re passionate about creating custom software solutions that help your business thrive, but we also know that it’s not helpful to reinvent the wheel. If there’s an existing software solution that fits your needs, we’re going to recommend it over recreating that same solution as custom software.
However, most off-the-shelf systems have gaps. Often, these gaps are where custom solutions can fit. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of both approaches, look at how you can tell which is right for you, and ultimately discover that a hybrid approach is frequently the best one.
While buying software may sometimes appear to be the easier and more affordable option, it comes with its own set of challenges. And if the system you select doesn’t match your needs, it quickly becomes the more expensive option.
Pre-built software solutions are usually designed to meet the needs of a wide range of businesses, which means they aren’t tailored to your specific requirements. This generalized nature can lead to a need for extensive customization, which is both time-consuming and costly. It’s not unusual to see a company choose an off-the-shelf software package, and then spend more customizing it than fully custom software would have cost them in the first place.
In addition, pre-built software solutions can create a dependency on the vendor for support and updates. This is quite problematic if the vendor goes out of business, stops supporting the software, or regularly deprecates features, thereby leaving customers using those features behind on an older version.
Building Custom Software
Building custom software, on the other hand, offers a range of benefits that make it more appealing for many situations. By creating a custom solution from scratch, you can ensure that it’s tailored to your exact needs and requirements. This helps improve productivity, efficiency, and overall business operations.
When you build custom software, you have complete control over it. This means you can make changes and updates as needed – without relying on a third-party vendor. Features you use will never be deprecated because they are in use only by you. You can also ensure that the software is secure, as it is built with your specific security requirements in mind.
Finally, building custom software provides a competitive advantage. By creating a solution that’s unique to your business, you stand out from the competition and provide a higher level of service to your customers. After all, your competitors are using off-the-shelf systems to run their businesses. If you use the same system without raising the bar, the best you can hope to do is have parity with them.
The Hybrid Approach
For most large projects, a combination of both off-the-shelf and custom software is the best approach. This allows you to take advantage of the benefits of both options, while minimizing drawbacks.
Usually, that looks like this:
- One or more off-the-shelf systems run several key components of your business
- Custom systems are built for certain audiences (partners, clients) and devices (such as mobile)
- Custom integrations are built between your custom applications and off-the-shelf systems
Which Option is Right for You?
If you make technology choices for your organization, here are several key things to keep in mind to help you know whether custom or off-the-shelf is right for your project (or a part of your overall solution):
- Your Processes or Theirs?
Off-the-shelf software is designed with a generic set of features and processes that might not necessarily fit your business requirements. This means that you may have to adapt your processes to fit the software, which can be time-consuming and inefficient.
Custom software, on the other hand, can be designed to fit your existing processes, making it a more efficient and effective choice. If your processes are a key differentiator for your business, you’re not going to want to change them. And that means custom software could be the best fit for you.
- Expensive Customization and Quality Control
Off-the-shelf software salespeople will often tell you that their software can handle your requirements, but this can be a very expensive customization process, and you often have less control over the quality of the end result. This leads to unexpected costs, delays, mistakes, and poor-quality user experiences.
With custom software, you have greater control over the entire process and can ensure that the end result meets your exact requirements.
- Competitive Parity or Competitive Advantage
If you’re trying to do something better than your competition, using the same off-the-shelf software only gets you to parity with them – it doesn’t give you a competitive advantage.
Custom software can be designed to give you a unique advantage, tailored to your specific business needs and offerings.
- Licensing Models and User Experience
Off-the-shelf software is generally good for internal systems, where you can train the users on how to use it. But when you want a delightful experience that is easy to use, you might want to build it custom. For example, we often build customer web portals, to ensure that delightful experience, and integrate them into a back-end system. Other times, we find that an off-the-system system doesn’t have good mobile support, so we’ll create a custom mobile app that ties into the back-end system.
Even if the desired experience can be built in an off-the-shelf system, sometimes the licensing models can be restrictive in giving access to only a certain number of your employees, and not all of them. If you have thousands of employees who all need a license to log in to the off-the-shelf software, it can be rather cost prohibitive. In this case, it’s better to build the app outside the off-the-shelf system and integrate into it for the data it owns.
Need Some Advice?
If you’ve got off-the-shelf software that you’re using to run your business, then some of the items above probably resonated with you. And if you bought or built when you should have done the opposite, then you know firsthand the pain of making that mistake.
Usually, the best solution is a mix of custom and off-the-shelf software working together. It’s not always easy to see where those lines should be, though. At Trailhead, we have decades of experience identifying those lines, and we are available to leverage that experience for your benefit.
If you’re interested in a free consultation with one of Trailhead’s seasoned experts, you can contact us and we’ll set up a short call to hear more about your needs, and then give you some sound advice on the best next steps. Trailhead is here to help!