Custom Dev, or Off-The-Shelf?

In my career travels, I am fortunate enough to be exposed to some brilliant folks, and have the had the opportunity to learn much from them. I have had a plethora of conversations, discussing a breadth of topics concerning the Information Technology industry. A reoccurring theme popped up a few times over the last couple of weeks, and I felt inclined to jot down a few thoughts on the Boxed Software vs. Custom Development decisions businesses make.


At first glance, an off-the-shelf solution may be a more time-efficient, cost-effective approach when a tool to enhance business processes becomes necessary. Customizing a homegrown solution from scratch can seem a bit overwhelming, costly, with a lot of unknowns. Some of those assumptions are misconceptions.


Large, boxed, off-the shelf HR, Finance, or ERP software has an initial purchase price (of course), and there are typically licensing fees associated with that purchase, dependent on how many end users there will be. These monstrous software organizations advertise the versatility and customizations that are possible, but to customize a system of that magnitude typically requires more bodies, either from internal personnel, or from an outsourced Solutions Provider. If the Solutions Provider has a niche skillset, for a very particular software stack/product, they will certainly come with an even higher premium. Even if internal resources are able to learn the software and make their own customizations, there is still a hefty cost, so organizations tend to stick with the default features, changing their business procedures in order to “shoe horn” their practices in to this new, expensive tool.  I have run in to several IT Leaders in the Tampa market that boldly state they wouldn’t dare put their organizations’ ERP implementation on their resume, as it took twice as long than the original forecast to complete the project, and finished way over budget. The proof is in the pudding.


Recognizing that a bottleneck or inefficient process exists in the business is the first step. Selecting a software solution FIRST, then remodeling the businesses’ practices around that tool, however, seems backwards. Developing practices and procedures very specific to that particular business and industry first, with no tool in mind, seems a bit more logical. Once an impeccable process is identified, then the creative process to designing a perfect tool to streamline or automate the new procedure can begin.


Although custom applications development can seem quite costly up front, that cost is a better alternative than exceeding boxed software implementation budgets. All pricing aside, the outcome of a custom build is where the true value lies. A custom Web & Mobile solution will evolve with both the business processes, and the organization. Boxed software will not evolve, and there will be just be shinier versions to purchase off-the-shelf in the future, forcing a repeat of a massive implementation endeavor. (**now of course SaaS solutions are an entirely different story, they are very scalable, constantly evolving, and SaaS will most likely replace all boxed software over the next decade or so, as off-the-shelf tools that are hosted locally are dying a slow death)


All-in-all, the large Boxed Software companies have done an excellent job at branding themselves as the only logical solution, and over the years some of those household (or business) names have become the norm to purchase and implement in to an enterprise. However, buying a tool off-the-shelf is not the only option, and working with a boutique Applications Development Firm, may be a much more practical solution. There certainly is endless value in having a team of software experts on site, taking the time to intimately understand their clients’ business, and building an autonomous solution that fits a very specific need. Working with an Agile Firm (like Clearly Agile) is an added bonus, as every two weeks, at the end of a Sprint Cycle, the customer can view, use, experiment with working software, easily making adjustments throughout the development process to even better fit the business.


Jamming the square peg through the round hole with boxed software is going out of style, and Clearly Agile will be here, if and when you need us. Thank you for reading.