Let’s say you just found out that one of your finance people is spending half of their day taking figures out of one system and not only copying them into another system but also into an Excel spreadsheet. That sheet is then sent to someone in receiving where it’s expanded and eventually sent to someone else in finance for recording.
There’s got to be a better way.
Conventional business wisdom says there should be a software solution that would take all of that back and forth, throw in the copying and pasting, and make it all one seamless process. Bonus points if it also had a reminder you could set for end-of-quarter reporting. That same conventional business wisdom says there ought to be an off-the-shelf piece of software you could just buy, have IT install it for everyone involved, and be done with it.
You start researching your options. You read the reviews, you watch the tutorials, and you reach out to business contacts who know your business for recommendations. And what you find is disappointing. Between up-front costs, licensing fees, and the fact that nothing out there meets more than 60% of your needs, you’re feeling a bit dejected.
Enter custom software development.
One of your contacts mentioned that they used a piece of software you can’t find mention of anywhere on the internet (except their company site). When you inquire, you’re told that it was built for them specifically by a local software company. Intrigued, you ask yourself, “Is this the answer I’ve been looking for?”
What Is Custom Business Software?
The idea behind custom software is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, you lay out your needs and the developers make you a piece of software that does what you need, and nothing else. You can have your own solution tailored to your specific needs, your industry, even your particular niche. Whatever it is that you can’t find in off-the-shelf (OTS) solutions you can have built for you.
One-size-fits-all rarely works in the clothing world, so what makes software companies think it will work with their products? OTS software packages are designed to work well for a majority of their users, and the reality is that they mostly succeed in that aim. For a vast majority of users, Microsoft Word (the leading word processing software in the world) works just fine. The thing is, most of those users are only using a small percentage of the software’s features. Do you use Widow Lines? The extended clipboard? Can you turn off all of the menus for a distraction-free writing experience?
OTS software is excellent at catering to the masses. And if you can make a commercially available solution work for your situation, that’s awesome. Something to consider here—OTS software stays in its lane quite well. What we mean is that you may be forced to change your workflow in order to accomplish what you need to be done. What is that change in the business process going to cost in training time, lost efficiency while everyone gets up to speed, etc?
Custom business software, of course, also comes with pros and cons.
Custom software pros
- Offers the ultimate flexibility. Since the program is being built just for you, it can include exactly the features you need, and nothing you don’t.
- Provides full control over scalability. With OTS, you pay a licensing fee for every seat (employee using the software), and these fees are often renewed annually. With custom, you pay for the package once and that’s it. You can install it everywhere you need it.
- Eliminates worry about software rights, because you own them. Dovetailing from the above, because you own the software you never have to worry about infringing on the developer’s rights. That means you never pay royalties or per-seat licensing fees.
Custom software cons
- Not generally plug-and-play. Since this package is being custom-built for your company and its specific needs and requirements, it’s not as easy as buying and installing it. The software development life cycle (SDLC) takes time.
- Higher initial investment. While there are no ongoing fees with custom software, there can be a high initial cost. While OTS software can cost less than $100 initially, a custom build may run to higher numbers off the bat.
- Requires constant stakeholder involvement. This software is being built for your team(s), so it’s crucial that they are involved from day one in the planning and design of the software. This can be taxing, especially on teams that are already overworked with the process problems you’re trying to solve. As such, you’d want to pick a custom software development partner that already understands your needs and has strong communication protocols in place.
Is Custom Software the Right Option for You?
Now that we’ve laid out the idea behind custom software, we can hear you asking the inevitable question—do I need custom software? We can’t actually answer that question for you. What we can and will do is give you a starting place to begin finding the answer for yourself.
First things first, assess your use case. What is it you need to accomplish with a piece of new software? Are you in a crowded industry with a high rate of technology adoption? Check into OTS options, chances are there’s already something out there that will work quite well for you. On the other hand, are you a one-of-a-kind business operating in a specialized niche with no true competition? Chances are you’d be better served with a piece of custom software.
Next, ask yourself what it’s costing you in lost productivity to have your team continue their rote routine of copy/paste/email (to continue with our example from the intro). Question 1 should be, “can this be automated?” If so, there are solutions out there like robotic process automation (RPA) that might work well for you. If not, or if you’re dealing with a situation that involves integration with multiple existing programs or legacy databases, once again custom software is probably your best bet.
Now, do the math. Look at the ROI of the initial layout of cash to a development company vs finding an OTS option that’s close enough. Be sure to include training time, lost productivity while everyone ramps up, and, on the OTS side, being sure there aren’t ways an employee can accidentally throw a monkey wrench into the process with an unused feature.
Does everything add up? Does the increase in efficiency this software will lead to outweigh the initial costs?
5 Scenarios Where Custom Software Makes Sense
To aid in your thought process and decision making, here are 5 scenarios where we feel custom software is truly the best option. You’ll see a variety of industries mentioned, as well as multiple reasons why custom wins out over OTS given the specifics. Maybe you’ll see your own situation reflected in one of our examples.
1) Your industry has tight regulations you must comply with
Our go-to example here is HIPAA in the healthcare sector. Medical service providers have a very specific set of needs, and there are tight regulations around how they handle patient data, called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Any organization operating in healthcare, even tangentially, must be able to provide proof that their practices are adhering to these standards at all times.
So, let’s say you’re a physical therapy practice that specializes in the long-term rehab of auto accident victims. Patients need to be able to access their records, you need to be in contact with multiple auto insurance providers and primary care physicians, and all of that data needs to be locked down and secure from prying eyes. A custom piece of software designed by a company with a healthcare specialization will provide you with all of the right access while ensuring nobody else can get to your patient’s information.
2) You’re continuing to use manual processes despite using the latest OTS solution
You’ve got Office 365, the latest cloud collaboration tools, and the most recent and cutting edge CMS and inventory tracking systems out there. Yet you just found out that someone still has to copy figures from system to system and into Excel (again, referencing our intro example). Remember that while OTS caters to a majority of users, it can’t do everything for everyone.
Since that person is not the only one involved in this scenario (they get the numbers from one department, share them with another, and involve a partner when sending the Excel sheet out), a custom integration may be called for. Something that not only connects your databases, enabling them to input the numbers once and have them go everywhere they’re needed, but that also allows secure account access to partners outside of your organization. And put a user-friendly interface on the whole thing to ensure everyone is happy using it.
3) You’re currently manually inputting data into multiple systems
While similar to number 2 above, this scenario is different enough to warrant its own example. Say you’re an SMB owner using Harvest for time tracking your employees, Trello for project management, Excel for client tracking, and Quickbooks for accounting. That’s a lot of systems. And every time you have a payment to record (for instance), you’re inputting it into each one separately.
With a small custom program, you can have a single UI where you input that payment record. The program could then use APIs to send that information to each location where it’s needed. Hours input by employees can be sent to Harvest for internal tracking, Trello so the client sees who’s doing what on each project, and Quickbooks so the employee is paid appropriately.
4) Human error costs more than the software to eliminate it
Say Company A is a major retailer who was an early adopter of digital payment processing. That was pretty advanced tech for the time, so there were integration problems that led to them continuing to print out daily transaction records and manually input them into their in-house accounting system.
Imagine that a given input error can cost Company A upwards of $10,000, while a custom piece of software that could easily automate this process would cost in the area of $20,000. Custom software can pay for itself in no time.
5) Tracking a single transaction requires moving between multiple programs
In order to follow a single shipment, a logistics manager often has to move from their GPS tracker to their inventory management system, over to a PM suite, and eventually to their CRM tool. And they have to have all of these open concurrently in order to ensure they have the most up-to-date information.
Contrast that with a single dashboard where the manager can have modules connected to each of these systems. Now, using one program rather than 4 (sparing their computer’s resources) they can have real-time tracking data available to send anywhere at a moment’s notice.
So, Is Custom Business Software the Right Option for You?
There are business cases to be made for OTS, and there are business cases to be made for custom software. Our goal today was to help you see the ways each option works and to help you start the process of deciding for yourself which way to go. You know your business better than anyone. The key to solving your software needs is to take that knowledge and put it to work for you.
Learn More About Intertec’s Software Engineering and Support Services
Intertec specializes in building and supporting custom software for its diverse clients. Our experienced team of interdisciplinary professionals has experience at all stages of the software development lifecycle. Click here to learn more. Prefer a personal consultation? Go ahead and schedule a meeting with us here!