Bespoke - it’s a word that conjures up Saville Row suits and handcrafted furniture. Luxury. Excess. Not something you want to be blowing the budget on if you’ve got a business to run, profit to make, shareholders to please. But when it comes to software development the business benefits of going bespoke can by far outweight the additional budget you’ll need to dedicate to it.
First though, let’s look at why commercial off the shelf solutions (COTS) can be useful. Because there are definitely situations where this is the right option. For example, you would never dream of developing your own email client to compose, send and receive emails. Or as a more realistic example, COTS Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions are likely a great choice if you have “normal” requirements to track your prospective, current and past customer engagement, to communicate with them as groups and individually, and to gain insight into how your sales pipeline is progressing. Where your need is similar to a wide variety of other businesses’ needs, then COTS is great as it means you don’t need to reinvent the wheel and you can get a great solution faster and at a lower cost.
The core issue is really one of “fit” and if your needs aren’t fully solved by any solution right out of the box then you’re looking at customisations. As soon as the number of customisations start building up, that’s when the right call between COTS and bespoke gets harder to make. Customisations not only cost significantly more time and money to develop than the equivalent feature in a bespoke solution (because they are being built on a bigger and more complex codebase) but they also add significant maintenance costs and can make it hard to upgrade the software in the future.
Here are some of the reasons why you might decide that off the shelf isn’t going to give you the value for money:
There are often situations where there is a large overlap between your business requirements and the functionality provided by a COTS solution. You may for example be facing a complex challenge such as implementing a new Manufacturing Execution Solution (MES) or an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system; there are certainly several COTS solutions that would be worth considering.
But the goal of an off-the-shelf solution is to provide as many features as possible in order to reach the maximum audience. It’s a broad approach rather than one which is tailored to meet your exact needs. It is likely to have functions that are entirely irrelevant - which you’ll still have to pay for and which will be a distraction to users - and others that are not quite good enough for what you’re looking to do, forcing a choice between customisations or compromising your requirements.
How critical is the problem you’re trying to solve with your software solution? If the function you’re addressing is infrequently performed and relatively low risk, then off-the-shelf may well offer the cost-benefit ratio that you need.
But if you’ve got a high number of users completing a particular function on a regular basis - and the implication of this function not being carried out in the right way carries a high risk then building bespoke software can help you mitigate that risk, increase efficiencies and ultimately save money.
That off-the-shelf solution you’re looking at might be what you want right now but if their developer’s roadmap is different to yours - and you may well have no way of knowing - there is likely to come a time when it no longer suits your needs. Changing to a different solution means costly re-investment of valuable resources and you won’t usually have any access to the code, so can’t take matters into your own hands.
Or it could be that as your needs change you want greater functionality and in order to access this through your current solution you suddenly incur large costs in order to upgrade while being at the mercy of the COTS developer’s timeline rather than the needs of your business.
Or what if that company goes bust? Your solution can quickly become redundant and without support. When you’re considering cost, remember to factor in the flexibility that bespoke software can give you and how it could actually save you money in the future by offering lower cost long term maintenance and support.
As we’ve already said, the goal of an off-the-shelf solution is to provide as many features as possible in order to reach the maximum audience. This combined with the relatively low price point and ease of access means its naturally going to be used fairly widely.
If you’re an innovative company who prides yourself on being ahead of the game, then bespoke software can help you set yourself apart and give you your competitive advantage. You can build unique features into your software that no one else have, so your end users can feel they’re accessing something special.
You might even create something so innovative that you can actually sell it on and use your new software as an income generating tool, like online supermarket delivery system Ocado have done.
Finally, bespoke software can simply be a joy to work with. Because it’s made specifically for your needs, with craftsmanship and care, it should be simple to use and effective in achieving what it needs to. If you’re using it internally, your employees will be happier. If you’re using it externally, your clients will be more likely to want to work with you because of how efficient it is.
Just think of how Uber has gobbled up such a large share of the taxi market in a relatively short time. Their app makes it so easy for their users to work with them - why would they bother with the hassle of trying to find a local cab company’s number and hunting down enough cash?
While there are times when off the shelf software is going to be the best solution, it’s worth doing your research. Talk to a development company and at least get an idea of what’s possible from a bespoke solution and how much the cost difference is likely to be. It may well be that by the time you factor in all the advantages we’ve looked at above, you’ll find that bespoke actually makes more business sense in terms of your total cost of ownership (TCO).