When Should You Choose Custom Software Development vs. Off the Shelf?

Custom software development vs off the shelf

There’s a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution out there for virtually every use case, from marketing automation to accounting to asset tracking, which typically charge a set fee per month or per user for access to a cloud-hosted platform. Many apps are even built on top of solutions that you’re likely already using, such as Salesforce.

So why would you engineer your own solution when you can license a pre-packaged solution? In many cases, an off-the-shelf solution just doesn’t add up to what you need.

Here are some of the questions to ask when considering whether to build or buy a software solution:

How large is your potential user base?

Most existing software solutions are licensed on a per user basis—so if you have a lot of users who need access to the tool, your costs can skyrocket quickly. If your marketing team of 20 people needs access to a marketing automation toolset, that seems like a sensible expenditure: There’s no way it’s worth spending months of dev time building a proprietary tool in that situation.

On the flip side, if you need a tool to streamline data delivery to thousands of different retail locations, the costs for running through a third-party vendor are likely to be exorbitant. In this case, it often makes sense to bite the bullet and invest in a custom software application: While you’ll spend more on upfront development, your costs from that point onward will be minimal, compared to an ongoing monthly bill from a third-party vendor.

What unique needs does your company have?

While there are thousands of off-the-shelf software tools available, they may not be a fit for any number of reasons. Does your industry have special security compliance regulations that make it difficult to work with a cloud-based provider? Do you require special integrations that aren’t available in off-the-shelf solutions? Look at the available features in the solutions that you’re considering, and, if there’s nothing on the market that fits your needs, it might be time to consider a custom build.

Many successful apps on the market today were only born because their founders knew they could create something better than what was out there—the project management tool Basecamp, for instance, was launched after founder Jason Fried tried out a few project management solutions for his web development shop, and realized none of them had the intuitiveness he was looking for. Explore available market options if you have a certain need that you’d like to fill with technology, but don’t be afraid to explore building something on your own if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

What are your long-term goals for the application?

If you only plan to use the application within your company, an available solution may suit you just fine—but if you’re thinking about a software tool that you can offer to your customers, or even charge a licensing fee for, a custom solution could be an essential component of your business growth plan. Building your own SaaS tool can offer new revenue streams to your business, and help you add proprietary technology to your company portfolio, which will be incredibly valuable in the event of an eventual acquisition. When you license a software tool, you’re simply borrowing the right to use it, and are vulnerable to any changes in business model, integrations, or pricing that may occur over time—but by building it yourself, you can incorporate it into any plans that you might have for your company’s growth.

For instance, one of our clients came to us for help with managing their own process of managing security personnel, and the deluge of accompanying paperwork in their workflow. We were able to build them a streamlined app, FormForce, that simplified the process exponentially—and now they’ve made their solution commercially available for other organizations to license. The app is quickly building a reputation as an industry standard for many companies subject to heavy compliance requirements.

Will a managed service provider work for my use case?

Often, a company’s technology needs are too complex to simply install an off the shelf solution. You may need to build out a number of custom integrations to get the tool working in line with your needs. In this case, that may often mean working with a managed service provider (MSP) to set up your technology stack, but that can add millions of dollars of expense and impact your bottom line. Before making that commitment, do the math to see what the difference is in signing with an MSP versus building out your own solution—including the opportunity cost of not building a custom app.

While a custom app isn’t the right fit in every situation, building your own application can add a huge amount of value to your organization, and ensure that your business growth isn’t reliant on the whims of third-party software companies or MSPs.

And it doesn’t mean you need to hire a team of engineers in-house: Consider partnering with a software engineering consultancy for support with your product vision, prototyping, buildout, and ongoing maintenance, for on-tap specialized support when you need it.

Custom software development helps your business get exactly what you want, and iterate on that solution as you grow. Off-the-shelf may get you close to what you’re looking for—but if you want a tool that will fit your company’s unique needs, a bespoke solution is the only answer.