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When is it worth developing bespoke software?

If you’ve identified a business process which could be streamlined via software, you face a very important choice: do you procure an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution, or find a reputable software house to build a bespoke solution?

The answer very much depends on your requirements, budget, and whether the software has the potential to give you a competitive advantage.

Bespoke versus off-the-shelf software

Off-the-shelf software is often packed full of lovely features, but in classic Pareto style: the majority of people only use a minority of the available features. Also, there’s a reasonable chance that it won’t do exactly what you need out of the box.

There is a common paradox within off-the-shelf software that on the one hand its multitude of unused features make it overly complex, but it still has key functionality gaps that require workarounds.

Bespoke software, by definition, does precisely what you need it to – no more, no less.

The cost difference between off-the-shelf and bespoke software isn’t always huge either. Off-the-shelf software is cheaper upfront, as the fixed cost of development is shared by the community of users. However, you may need to invest in some customisation work, and you will need to integrate it with your existing systems. Bespoke software costs more at the outset, but it will have been built precisely to your requirements, to fit in with your existing software and hardware infrastructure.

Sounds like an easy win for bespoke software … or is it?

Updates and bugs

Software tends to date quickly, and this can be galling if you have invested large sums in bespoke development and you realise you will have to release extra budget for updates. When you choose an off-the-shelf solution, on the other hand, updates simply developed and released to all users as often as needed.

When it comes to bugs and other usability issues, the communities of users that rely on off-the-shelf software will usually flag the problem and report it to the developer, such that it will often be fixed before you ever encounter it. With bespoke software, you’ll be the one spotting problems, reporting them, and needing to wait for them to be fixed – although thankfully, a reputable software house shouldn’t charge you for this.

‘Buy rather than build’?

The various pros and cons of bespoke and off-the-shelf software can easily leave you confused as to the right way forward. If in doubt, repeat the following mantra: “Buy rather than build, unless there’s competitive advantage”. A couple of (fictional) examples:

  • A logistics company works out a scheduling algorithm which could reduce fuel costs by 10% while also allowing faster deliveries. Clearly, bespoke delivery scheduling software gives a strong commercial advantage over competitors using less efficient off-the-shelf solutions.
  • A legal firm decides that, since they write lots of letters, they need a bespoke word processing program which does exactly what they want. They spend thousands of pounds to have it developed, but staff keep spotting missing features – spell checking, tracked changes etc. – so they end up spending much more money over the coming years to have this functionality developed. They would have saved a lot of time and money by buying Microsoft Word, rather than trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’.

If your organisation is technical or you develop software for other areas it may be valuable to do internal development. The dependence on a single application to run your business can mean that change can be tremendously hard and failure not an option. A binding of different services from cloud provides may be a safer way to go as reversing the process can be easier, you just start to use the component parts.

If you are going to do some software development give us a call. We can at least go through a sanity check; there may be an easier existing service to work with.


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