It’s a question that’s bound to come up early in your decision-making process: should you be looking to buy an off-the-shelf solution, or do you need to build custom software?

Commercial solutions may offer a number of benefits, but it can be difficult to solve all of your problems with off-the-shelf software. Because they are designed to target a large audience, boxed solutions tend to solve a small, specific subset of problems for a large group. On the other hand, you might think that a custom solution will be cost-prohibitive, or too complicated and time consuming to manage.

Which type of software will answer the unique needs of your business: an off-the-shelf solution or a custom build?

Pros and Cons of Buying Off-the-Shelf Software Solutions

Why do people choose commercial solutions like Quickbooks for accounting, or Uberflip for content marketing? Off-the-shelf software has a number of ‘pros’ that can make it attractive:

  • It’s quick to get into. Packaged software is designed to install and activate quickly, although necessary customizations and integrations with your existing systems can cut into the time savings.

  • It’s affordable. Because the cost of development and maintenance is distributed across multiple customers, you can enjoy some cost savings upfront. However, features and functions have to accommodate more users, as well. What seems simple at first might actually be too basic in practice. Similarly, a feature-rich solution quickly becomes bloated and complex if there are a lot of features your company doesn’t need.

  • It’s easy to gauge the experiences others are having. Pre-purchase, you can look up online reviews, get a software demo and even talk to other users about the experiences they’re having. Post-sales, you’ll probably have access to community support.

However, boxed software solutions have their limitations, as well:

  • It may not do everything you need it to do. Commercial software developers are trying to solve problems for as large a group as possible, so their solutions tend to run on the generic side. Always consider the hidden costs of having to change your business processes, retrain staff, and implement new systems to accommodate your software’s limitations when you’re comparing the costs of an off-the-shelf vs custom solution.

  • Customizations can be challenging to impossible. Off-the-shelf solutions can be expensive to modify, if you can change them at all. They’re specifically built to be upgraded only by the developers. If you want a new feature or functionality, you’re going to have to convince the software company to add it.

  • Off-the-shelf may not grow with your business. Rather than growing in lock-step with you, a boxed solution is likely to have a small number of packages available. You might end up paying a large premium to upgrade as soon as you hit a certain number of customers or transactions, for example. Per-seat costs, licensing fees, upgrade expenses and the internal costs of retraining staff to new versions can all add to the expense of a boxed solution.

  • You may be sacrificing a competitive edge. If you’re using the same software as your competitors, you’re ultimately limited to being able to do exactly what they are.

When Do You Need To Build Custom Software?

Custom software is designed and built to fit the unique needs of your business. It can be built to fully integrate with your existing processes. It can meet every business challenge you have, and solve every problem you identified in your evaluation phase. You won’t have to deal with unnecessary features, forced upgrades or incompatibility issues. Your custom software solution can grow and scale with your business.

So why do boxed solutions even exist? Custom development just isn’t right for every company, in every situation. There are a lot of processes that off-the-shelf software easily solves for; you probably don’t need a custom graphic design, word processing or appointment scheduling solution, for example. Your commercial software options there are great, with established, trusted solutions to solve those problems for you.

It’s the more complex challenges you’re facing that demand custom solutions. And while the initial cost might seem daunting, once compared to the hidden costs and potentially reduced ROI of a boxed solution, it can be surprisingly affordable. The key is in finding the right developer--one with whom you can build a lasting partnership. Ideally, your custom software developer will:

  • Have an intimate understanding of the unique business challenges and problems you’re trying to solve;

  • Act as an integral part of your team in every way, from responsiveness to a collaborative attitude;

  • Bring value to the project by way of their experience, agility and innovation;

  • Offer continuous integration and delivery methods including running unit tests, completing quality assurance, facilitating user acceptance testing (UAT), and more;

  • Have the capacity to iterate and scale quickly, to keep pace with your business needs as your company grows and evolves.

Remember, not all custom solutions are created equally. The initial cost savings of using an offshore software development team might initially seem tempting, but discounted rates can ending up costing your project’s success. Miscommunications across cultures and timezones, the loss of creativity and collaboration inherent to an in-house team, and a lack of agility are among the pitfalls of taking your software development offshore. Read Onshore vs. Offshore Software Development: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly to learn more.

Need help assessing what is the best option for your business? Skookum can help with a Build vs Buy analysis