Five Questions about Custom Software vs Off-the-Shelf Solutions

  • Luke Richardson
  • August 20, 2019

We sat down with Luke Richardson, Lead Opportunity Explorer at Airship, to discuss the common questions he’s asked when it comes to building custom software versus using an off-the-shelf solution. 

When does a company need a custom software solution?

If you’re a SaaS (Software as a Service) company, you’re likely going to want to own the intellectual property for your product. In those cases, custom software is best. By owning your software, you can sell the product to others, you can control the roadmap for what features and options you’re going to build next, and you can let your customers inform you of what needs to be prioritized in your product development roadmap.

Similarly, if you’re a tech-enabled company (you are using software as the primary way to facilitate your business) you are most likely going to want to own the intellectual property and control what features your clients/customer/users will see next. In this case your user experience is very important and you will likely want to manage that experience carefully.

Even in the cases mentioned above there will be times when you can use third party software solutions for internal operational efficiencies. Furthermore, there will be times when you will want to integrate 3rd party software into your custom solution. Examples could be payment processing through Stripe or customer service features through Zendesk. There is no need to recreate the wheel.

If you’re a non technical company (not at SaaS company or not a tech enabled company)and you are just looking for something that can help you do what you do better, then I would suggest looking for an off-the-shelf solution first. There’s a lot of great systems out there. And smart people are creating new ones every day to try to try to meet common needs in all types of organizations. In this case going off-the-shelf is likely to save you money up front and reduce implementation time.

Have you ever told someone they needed to use an off-the-shelf solution instead of building a custom software system?

I have suggested off-the-shelf solutions to many people considering building a custom solution, particularly if it’s for an operational efficiency or internal performance efficiency. We have also, in some cases, investigated opportunities to build custom software solutions but in the process determined that there is an off-the-shelf tool that will do the job.

We recently had a client who engaged us to design and build a custom solution. In the process of our research we found and existing software solution that had all the features our client needed and more. With a few custom integrations this solution could be implemented more quickly and could provide enterprise level features from the beginning.

The annual fees associated with the off-the-shelf software were quite large at the scale of our client. In this case we helped to negotiate lower annual fees and that made sense for our client to choose the off-the-shelf tool and move forward. Even though this meant less business for us we were very pleased that we had helped find what we believed to be the right solution for our client and friend.

How can an organization be sure that a custom software solution will be more beneficial and scalable?

When it comes to scalability, you just want to make sure that whoever you choose to work with is a professional team who thinks about your intended outcomes the way you do. You want your partner to understand your long term goals and and your path to growth. Work with your internal team our outsourced software development firm as a partner. Bring them in on your budget limitations and timing expectations. A really good partner is someone that you can trust to do what is in your best interest and not take advantage of your budgetary disclosures in any way.

Talk to your software development team or partner about expected user behavior and when and why spikes in usage would be expected. There are several good cloud services that help companies of all sizes scale appropriately as usage of their software applications increase and these service could be effective tools.

Additionally, a professional software architect can make some early decision while building the foundation of your software application that will make future feature additions much more efficient.

What are the signs that an off-the-shelf solution is failing a company?

I would say an off the shelf solution might be failing an organization if you’ve created an abundance of workarounds to make your software do what you really need it to do. In some cases your software may not have been designed for your particular use case. You may have found some manual manipulations that make it ‘kind of work’ but it is not just what you need.

Some financial metrics to evaluate:

  1. Cost of employees manually performing the extra work or slogging through the workarounds.
  2. Cost of time delays to serving your customers internal or external
  3. Cost to team member moral due to an inefficient process
  4. Opportunities for new sales or other intended organizational outcomes because of a very specific and intentional user experience.

Once you have evaluated some of the aforementioned items on a quantitive (financial) and qualitative (team and customer experience) basis it should become more evident if moving to a custom solution is a viable option.

If you need some help that is not a problem, connect with a professional agency you can trust. This company should be able to help you with understanding a general budget and timeline for your project. We at Airship would be happy to help you in this way. Please connect with use here if you think we can help.

What industries do you think are in the greatest need of custom software solutions?

The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, said something along the lines of: Every company is a software company. You have to start thinking and operating like a digital company. It’s no longer just about procuring one solution and deploying one. It’s not about one simple software solution. It’s really you yourself thinking of your own future as a digital company.

The point where I agree with him is that every organization can take advantage of the software and digital age that we are currently in. All industries can utilize digital tools to achieve success and accelerate the mission/vision. I think leaders should consider the outcomes they must achieve and then research the best existing solutions. If those solutions are nonexistent or inadequate then it could be a good sign to start the process of building something very specific to serve your customers, clients, or users in the very particular way you intend.

At Airship or mission is to create experiences that spark transformational change in the clients, crew, and the communities we serve. If you need help evaluating a custom software solution please reach out directly to me through this link. I will do may very best to help you navigate your decision making process.