Build or Buy: Which Technology Solution is Right for You?

TSP • @myTSPnet


When it comes to software, the build vs. buy question is one that looms large for many businesses. On one hand, off-the-shelf software can be fast to buy and implement, plus inexpensive. But as a company evolves, ready-made options may not have the customization capability a growing business needs. Both options can have a lot of value. Mostly, the right choice depends on what your business needs now and what your goals are for the future.

Sometimes, it’s hard to define exactly what your needs are. A good designer will not just tell a client what to do, they’ll show them options and focus on what the client says “no” to as much as what they like. Making the tentative decision to purchase off-the-shelf software will allow you the freedom to browse available options, which might surprise you — recent innovations in the marketplace might have evolved to meet your needs, or you may discover that readily available options have gaps that don’t fully meet your needs.

Knowing exactly what you need can be a challenge, and sometimes the best way to figure out the full list of what you require is to see what’s available and define your needs that way.

Premade software can be quick and convenient, but only if it works with what you already use. Let’s say your business relies on Software A to complete a crucial task, then purchases Software B to finish another related task. If Software A and B are not compatible, they won’t communicate effectively, and the solution becomes a problem. Before making a purchase on ready-made software, make sure it’s compatible with what you already use. If compatibility is an issue, it might be worth looking into custom software that can integrate with what you have.

It’s natural to assume that custom software will be more expensive than ready-made software, just as a shirt from the mall will cost less than a bespoke shirt. However, in software, this assumption is not always true. For many businesses, off-the-shelf software requires customization to fully support operations, which increases both cost and delays, sometimes so much that custom would have been the better option. It’s important to have a broad perspective of what you need the software to do, and how much any deficiencies in shelf software could end up costing.

An important question to address in the build vs. buy question is one of scale. If your needs are stable and likely to remain so and a packaged software option seems to fit the bill, that might be the way to go. On the other hand, if you plan to scale your business to grow quickly and you have a larger vision for a service in mind, custom software can help your business achieve a competitive advantage, boost productivity and be more agile as operations evolve. Another big consideration is time. If you need a solution yesterday, go for shelf software, which is ready when you are. A custom solution will take longer to create, so it’s only workable if you can afford to wait.

Premade software is great because it’s ready to use now and there are plenty of options available. However, it doesn’t offer much wiggle room in terms of customization. The structure is the structure, and that’s about it. If you need a user interface for an online learning company, for example, being able to choose from just a few color schemes might not matter.

But let’s say the learning company is for children, not adults — a custom design, perhaps with a specific color scheme and little animals here and there. If you’re in the online learning business, having a custom solution that perfectly articulates your vision will set you apart from competitors. On the other hand, if you have a small accounting business that has a set client list that won’t change much over time, customization might not matter as much, and a ready-made solution could be a great way to go.

The answer to the question of building versus buying ultimately depends on each individual business and what their needs demand. Timeliness, scalability, upfront cost, impact of a competitive edge and ease of implementation are the key factors that will determine which option is best for your business.