Choosing between building custom software or buying a solution off shelf, can be a defining factor in the success of your project or indeed your entire business if you’re a startup. No pressure.
As you probably guessed the answer is "it depends". It’s not a clear-cut question. Yes, some application requirements fit well into off-the-shelf software, while others can only be met with a custom product solution.
But in many cases, an application is suited to both custom and off-the-shelf software which means some difficult decisions need to be made. It’s a matter of weighing out the pros and cons – and we think these are the key points you should consider.
Get all your development ducks in a row – think fully specified requirements, good project management, and the right developer – and you get a high capability value custom software solution. In fact, it might be so capable that it gives your business the head start you need.
Of course, how a custom solution fares compared to white label pre-existing software will depend on your specific requirements. Shelf software can’t accommodate projects that were envisioned to meet the latest innovations in building, there is always a lag. But generic is more affordable than custom building an entirely new product, unless you build it offshore.
When buying software one of the biggest challenges is to integrate your solution of choice with the software you already use. Yes, though many vendors nowadays supply extensive API functionality the truth is that integration can be a cumbersome, expensive exercise.
In contrast, custom solutions can be produced from the ground up in a way that makes a solution an easy plug and play into existing systems. Furthermore, your custom solution can easily be edited to integrate it with future solutions because you own the code.
Custom software may be a better fit for your business than off-shelf and your development partner becomes part of the team. Vendors selling pre-packaged software will never take the trouble to fully understand your unique business concerns, but your software developer will.
In turn, your software developer can probe more deeply into your unique business requirements, proposing software solutions to some of your toughest problems. In other words, you gain a technology partner that can work to ensure that you get the most out of what today’s technology has to offer.
While specifying all your business requirements at the outset is ideal, the reality is that business is unpredictable, and updates and changes need to be continuous for the product to be successful – particularly if you are running a startup. Your business model can change rapidly in response to the market – and so can your technology requirements.
A custom solution can make it easier to add new features on a need-based schedule and to make systemic changes to your software that can line up with equally deep changes to your business. In contrast, a pre-packaged solution may rapidly become unsuitable.
It’s common knowledge that many of today’s most valuable businesses started out as a unique software idea that was custom coded to exacting requirements. Even if your business is not the next Instagram or TikTok building a tailored solution can enable you to swiftly leapfrog your competitors.
A custom solution can give your business a sharp advantage by offering your customers unique features nobody has iterated...yet. Custom can also be the go choice if it means digitizing your business operations more efficiently than your competitors – reducing your costs allowing you to build better products, or make your prices more competitive.
High Risk, High Reward. Needless to say, a custom solution may require hundreds or thousands of man-hours in programming to get up and running. It may involve complex, multi-layered teams too. All these programmers need to be paid – and the cost of development will be carried solely by your business.
To get a well built custom product will be extremely expensive, unless you can outsource somewhere cheaply, without compromising on quality.
Furthermore, if you don’t manage custom software development carefully or choose the wrong developer you can easily end up exceeding your budget – paying double or triple initial costs. Although this is a broken record, we could all use a reminder that good project management is critical.
Software that’s already been developed usually takes into account a broad range of business requirements, meeting the most common use cases but ignoring the outliers.
Nonetheless, you can expect a fairly rich set of features to work with.
When it comes to developing from scratch you may find the process of gathering requirements to be incredibly time-consuming, and even worse, ineffective – leaving you with an inadequate solution. In other words, be aware of the difficulty of mapping out functional requirements: it may be more difficult than it appears at first glance.
If you work with an agency vs hiring and building in-house you may be able to delegate the task of mapping out exact deliverables to the agency’s team leader. Great agencies have an uncanny ability to transform vague phrases like just make it so “it’s the uber of____” into solid technical specs their team can understand and build.
Off the shelf, software will automatically go through updates, improvements and bug fixes – assuming the vendor continues to serve the market. The costs of making these improvements is spread across everyone who buys the product.
In contrast, a custom solution will be yours to build updates for. You will need to optimize on a continuum or risk becoming outdated, or worse - not user friendly.
Upkeep costs for custom builds can pile up fast but a top agency or offshore team is one way to make it affordable. To mitigate risk it’s important to continuously update your product as – unpatched security vulnerabilities can bring down a business.
Packaged solutions are usually thoroughly documented and when done well, benefit from ongoing support. Custom solutions face a challenge here: what happens when the original development team moves on to other projects?
Unless a custom solution is thoroughly documented you may find it difficult to fix errors or expand on the solution at a later stage. Professional outsourcing agencies know how to manage the development process and provide you with documentation of everything you will need to easily work in the future. Support for your custom solution in the absence of documentation can be challenging.
Agencies and freelancers are both capable of providing documentation, however agencies tend to have a dedicated technical writer for this task. This makes it much less likely that they will forget something and reduces your risk.
Reducing risk by hiring an agency to custom build your software vs having a freelancer do is solo is a swaying incentive for a lot of companies.
A software team that manages itself can never project manage themselves as effectively as say a PM, a person whose job it is to do just that. Unless your developers are polymaths having one of your engineers write the documentation is not advisable. You will get an unnecessarily complex and difficult to read cryptic document. Quality documentation, FAQ and help bars with easy to understand navigation menus is done by specialized technical writers. Preferably writers who were never involved in the build and won’t “assume” what can and can’t be omitted.
Top class agencies let engineers do their job, and have a technical writer do theirs. In a perfect world so would every dev team but this is rarely ever the case.
Whatever route you chose for doing this - having proper documentation is critical.
Finally, while custom software development can clearly offer a huge advantage to your business by delivering a stellar technology solution, it is often true that existing, available solutions can be customized to a large degree.
Will the degree of customization be sufficient? And how much will it cost to customize an off the shelf solution? These are questions you have to ask, but flexible off-the-shelf solutions can undermine the case for a custom software development project.
The off-the-shelf vs. custom development choice is highly dependent on individual business requirements. Does your company have a unique product or service, or business model? Or do your requirements line up with the requirements of thousands of other, similar businesses?
Do you have the in-house experts to create and manage the development project? Have you ever done a project of this scale/difficulty/niche before? What are the best and worst possible outcomes for the project? What are the consequences of failure going to look like? Etc.
These are all questions your business needs to consider before making the choice.
However, the most important question you should ask is whether this software will be a key competitive advantage? If so, a custom solution is what needs to be built here.