If your business is looking to add new software systems to its network, the first question to ask is whether to buy an “off-the-shelf” solution or contract with a vendor to build a custom platform. Custom software is a powerful advantage for many businesses, but it’s not the right choice for everybody. The same goes for off-the-shelf software — it’s not right for some companies, but for many, it’s the perfect fit. So, what’s the right move for your business? Consider the process of buying a suit.
When you’re in the market for a new suit, you have two options: buy one in a store or have one custom made. The ones you can buy off the rack are designed for the average human figure and, while they may need a few modifications, they generally fit quite well. They’re convenient, too: you can see the material, the style, the color and texture, and how it looks on you before you purchase.
If you order a custom suit from a tailor, on the other hand, you step into terra incognita. While you discuss the design, materials, and desired look and fit beforehand, you’re relying on the tailor’s expertise to bring your vision to life. And once the suit is made, there won’t be much you can do to change it, even if you don’t like it.
My best suits have been bought off-the-shelf, and the few times I tried having custom ones made, I ended up with expensive suits I didn’t like much and rarely wore. And this experience is a good illustration of why custom software — like custom suits — aren’t for everybody. Let’s look at a few of the risks associated with custom software that might indicate it isn’t the right choice for your business.
Finding a Trusted Software Development Firm
When you’re in the market for a custom suit, you look for a tailor you trust, who understands your vision. In software, the tailor is the developer. Due to the declining standards in the ever-more-crowded industry, there are far too many developers out there who claim to be great “tailors” when, in reality, the poor quality of their work poses a serious problem for any business looking to use custom software as the cornerstone of growth.
While you can perform a lot of due diligence in selecting your developer, when it comes down to it, you won’t know if they were the right choice or not until you’re well into the project. Thoroughly vetting candidates and choosing a firm with a great track record and even personal recommendations can lessen the risk, but it still won’t be a sure thing.
Getting the Design & Materials Just Right
When you’re designing a custom suit, you look at the materials — what’s good-looking, reliable, and able to hold up over time — and the design. A classic fit that will remain in style for years, might be worth the investment. But if you’re looking for a trendier cut that will be outdated in six months, you might think about an off-the-rack option.
The same is true in software. We choose the technology foundation before building the software, and we look for architectures that will be reliable, provide good user experience, and stand up to both time and high usage volumes. Choosing a technology that is trendy today may mean your system will be difficult to support in the future.
Unfortunately, choosing technology isn’t always a sure bet. When Netflix began streaming content in browsers, it chose Microsoft Silverlight for its core technology. In its early years, Silverlight showed a lot of promise as a framework for cross-platform compatibility. But as time passed, Netflix began to encounter a lot of problems with the technology, finally discontinuing it. Shortly thereafter, Microsoft abandoned Silverlight as well.
A software system owner may not realize until after the software has been live for a while that the architecture choice isn’t sustainable. For Netflix or other tech giants to abandon Silverlight, and rewrite systems is one thing — for a smaller company, the time and cost could be devastating.
Time to Launch
If you’ve waited until a week before the wedding/job interview/conference, what have you, it’s too late to buy a custom suit. With an off-the-rack option, you can walk away with your purchase in minutes and have any alterations made in just a few days or even hours. But a custom suit takes weeks to make and involves a number of fittings. Sometimes we don’t have time to wait, and sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
In software, the same is true. Off-the-shelf solutions can be configured and implemented quickly, while custom systems require a significant investment in time and effort. This may be worth it if your business has the resources and time to invest, but if you need a new system quickly, off-the-shelf may be the better route.
Why am I, a top officer at a custom software development firm, writing this article dissuading people from investing in custom software? Because the reality is that custom software is not for every company, and it’s important to us to be transparent about that. We would rather point you in the direction of a solution that works for you than force you into a custom software system you can’t afford, don’t need, or won’t be satisfied with. After all, if buyer’s remorse over a custom suit is frustrating, it’s even worse when you’ve invested in something as complex as a custom software platform. No solution — no suit — is one-size-fits-all. What’s most important is finding the best fit for your business.