Buy vs Build: A Nuanced Approach to the Great Software Debate

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.

Buying Software

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):

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

Related Blog Posts

We hope you’ve found this to be helpful and are walking away with some new, useful insights. If you want to learn more, here are a couple of related articles that others also usually find to be interesting:

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Our Gear Is Packed and We're Excited to Explore With You

Ready to come with us? 

Together, we can map your company’s software journey and start down the right trails. If you’re set to take the first step, simply fill out our contact form. We’ll be in touch quickly – and you’ll have a partner who is ready to help your company take the next step on its software journey. 

We can’t wait to hear from you! 

Main Contact

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Together, we can map your company’s tech journey and start down the trails. If you’re set to take the first step, simply fill out the form below. We’ll be in touch – and you’ll have a partner who cares about you and your company. 

We can’t wait to hear from you! 

Montage Portal

Montage Furniture Services provides furniture protection plans and claims processing services to a wide selection of furniture retailers and consumers.

Project Background

Montage was looking to build a new web portal for both Retailers and Consumers, which would integrate with Dynamics CRM and other legacy systems. The portal needed to be multi tenant and support branding and configuration for different Retailers. Trailhead architected the new Montage Platform, including the Portal and all of it’s back end integrations, did the UI/UX and then delivered the new system, along with enhancements to DevOps and processes.


We’ve logged countless miles exploring the tech world. In doing so, we gained the experience that enables us to deliver your unique software and systems architecture needs. Our team of seasoned tech vets can provide you with:

Custom App and Software Development

We collaborate with you throughout the entire process because your customized tech should fit your needs, not just those of other clients.

Cloud and Mobile Applications

The modern world demands versatile technology, and this is exactly what your mobile and cloud-based apps will give you.

User Experience and Interface (UX/UI) Design

We want your end users to have optimal experiences with tech that is highly intuitive and responsive.


This combination of Agile software development and IT operations provides you with high-quality software at reduced cost, time, and risk.

Trailhead stepped into a challenging project – building our new web architecture and redeveloping our portals at the same time the business was migrating from a legacy system to our new CRM solution. They were able to not only significantly improve our web development architecture but our development and deployment processes as well as the functionality and performance of our portals. The feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive. Trailhead has proven themselves to be a valuable partner.

– BOB DOERKSEN, Vice President of Technology Services
at Montage Furniture Services

Technologies Used

When you hit the trails, it is essential to bring appropriate gear. The same holds true for your digital technology needs. That’s why Trailhead builds custom solutions on trusted platforms like .NET, Angular, React, and Xamarin.


We partner with businesses who need intuitive custom software, responsive mobile applications, and advanced cloud technologies. And our extensive experience in the tech field allows us to help you map out the right path for all your digital technology needs.

  • Project Management
  • Architecture
  • Web App Development
  • Cloud Development
  • DevOps
  • Process Improvements
  • Legacy System Integration
  • UI Design
  • Manual QA
  • Back end/API/Database development

We partner with businesses who need intuitive custom software, responsive mobile applications, and advanced cloud technologies. And our extensive experience in the tech field allows us to help you map out the right path for all your digital technology needs.

Our Gear Is Packed and We're Excited to Explore with You

Ready to come with us? 

Together, we can map your company’s tech journey and start down the trails. If you’re set to take the first step, simply fill out the contact form. We’ll be in touch – and you’ll have a partner who cares about you and your company. 

We can’t wait to hear from you! 

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