Bespoke vs off-the-shelf software
How do you ensure the best ROI?
Americans call it Line-of-Business (LoB) software. It’s the special stuff that’s specific to your profession or market, or even more specific to your own particular business. It makes some or all of your key business processes (or your production line) work, and you can’t easily live without it.
But, like everything else, LoB software gets old and eventually needs replacing. When you need to do this there are basically only three options:
- Upgrade what you presently use—if you can.
- Google (and browse websites) for an off-the-shelf solution from a commercial software house.
- Use a developer: have something made that really meets your needs.
Whichever option you take, to make sure that you get the best from your investment, the first step in the process is to analyse your business requirements.
- Why do you need new software?
- Do you need something to improve the way your business runs?
- Do you need to replace an existing application that’s no longer fit for purpose?
Time spent working out what you really want the software to do, and how you want it to integrate with your business processes, pays dividends. For example, It’s no good buying the “best” software off-the-shelf if you have to re-invent proven and established ways of working (just because the software says you have to). This is inefficient, ineffective and can be error prone.
Let’s consider your three options:
Upgrade uncertainties are uncomfortable!
You might simply look for an upgrade to your old software—that’s easy, right? But what happens if the upgrade is actually less relevant to your needs, either because your business has moved on, or the software house has? Also, what happens if the company that developed your current software no longer exists? That’s not at all uncommon: it happened to one of our own clients!
Upgrades often place new demands on hardware, too. It’s unheard of nowadays for a new software release to be more efficient in its use of the computers it runs on. Commercial developers much prefer to add new features they can promote, rather than spend time on faster code. You might, as a consequence, find you need the “Patio Doors” release of Windows (or whatever), on every machine that runs the thing.
That in turn means upgrades, possibly more memory or other, better hardware. And Patio Doors looks quite different from Windows 10, too, so your staff will need training on that as well!
All of a sudden this route forwards is not as easy, or cheap, as it seems.
Off-the-shelf cleverness, in a box?
How much of it will you actually use?
Off-the-shelf software, by definition, isn’t made for you or your business specifically. Although we’re talking LoB here, it’s still designed to do most things for most users, or possibly it’s an attempt to do everything such a user might possibly want.
Never forget that you’ll be buying a software licence, not a solution to a business problem!
Of course, it might be just what you need, but usually, when buying off-the-shelf, a percentage of your investment will always be wasted, because nothing can really be an optimized, one-size-fits-all solution. It could be over, or under, specified, and we’ve seen too many instances of software investment that’s really failed to deliver on the publisher’s promises.
So if your off-the-shelf software matches only 80% of your needs then 20% of your investment is arguably wasted. Or, to look at it the other way, you’re still lacking a solution for the remaining 20% of work—which might be a crucial matter.
In the other direction, off-the-shelf solutions are very often overly complex, with a lot of functionality that you may never need or use, which, of course you are paying for.
How much of Word or Excel do you actually use, for example? It’s easy for you, or your accountant, to see the ROI of a new van, but what if you could only get one with a trailer permanently attached? Occasionally that would be brilliant, but a lot of the time the extra “functionality” would just be a nuisance (especially on our local roads!).
But it only costs…
Just because software looks relatively inexpensive doesn’t mean that it’s the best solution for your business. Purchase cost is only a small part of the total cost of ownership.
New software can be complex, with a steep learning curve, and small publishers often miss crucial steps in the release process, such as up-to-date documentation that’s correct for your version (rather than several versions ago), or ridiculous bugs in the interface that mean errors in use. Problems like this mean costly, wasted time, and that you may never fully get to grips with the way it works.
It will put us ahead of the game!
Er, possibly not. Whoever designed the software clearly knows a lot about your business. That means they are either in the same game as you, in which case you’re actually paying a competitor(!), or they have a development partner who is.
Either way, because it’s sold off-the-shelf, the software is also available to your competitors, which will make it difficult for you to gain any competitive advantage that way. That’s not to say it can’t help you at all, but it probably won’t give you the edge you need in any highly competitive market. Bespoke software, however, really can do that.
All these issues make mistakes far too easy. In the worst cases (and we do see them), expensive upgrades or new software just end up unused on a shelf: money wasted!
Bespoke Software Solutions for your Business
Rather than accept the many compromises involved in buying software off-the-shelf, you could invest in a bespoke solution that precisely matches your business needs and can grow and develop as your business grows.
- Better business control: Analysing your business processes properly will ensure that a bespoke solution matches the way your business runs: no more adapting business operations to suit software. This leads to improved efficiency and a significant reduction in errors.
- Increased productivity and reduced costs: Bespoke software applications can automate repetitive tasks which increases productivity and reduces cost.
- Differentiation: Because it has been developed with your business requirements to the fore, your bespoke solution sets you apart from the competition and gives you a competitive edge.
- Better data: Useful management reports help you stay on top of your operations and a bespoke software solution provides the information you need, when you need it and in a format that is easy to understand making a far more effective tool for your business.
- Better integration: Your bespoke software can also be integrated with existing applications, making further improvements to effectiveness and efficiency as well as significantly reducing the opportunity for errors to creep into your business processes.
Software as glue
There’s always smaller stuff which you probably can’t just buy a solution for. It may be some unusual piece of hardware that won’t talk to your production control system, or a software process that’s simply too odd for anybody else to care about. It may be a small project, and it may matter hugely to your business, but as far as the commercial software world is concerned, you’re on your own.
Obviously, getting a proper, robust fix, from skilled and business-focused developers, could save you a fortune and give you just the edge you need. For example, if you can keep that very expensive analyser running for two or three more years, you’ll then be able to buy the very latest replacement, and step over your competitors (who’d be forced to get something earlier). Even in a retail context, not having to replace your POS units for a while longer could be valuable.
“Glue” software—small projects that fix a well-defined but expensive issue—are a great way to take control of your asset management, rather than let built-in obsolescence control you!
Making that call
It’s only fair to say that the initial cost of a bespoke solution may be higher than the purchase price when upgrading or buying off-the-shelf, but you can make significant savings in the longer term, because of a lower total cost of ownership.
As a development and support company, we have no interest in wasting your resources. We want you to have the right solution to your business need—there are times when the upgrade might be just that—but the cost of bespoke development is usually a lot less than people think, and the process is often faster, too. We pride ourselves on giving good advice, and we’ll help you understand the choices available in any specific situation.
For a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of bespoke software check out our other blog post “Could your business benefit from a bespoke software solution”.