There is an ever-growing number of competitive choices when it comes to software. In addition to prepackaged software, professional software development of custom-built solutions is more accessible than ever before. How do you know whether bespoke software development is preferable to an off-the-shelf option? This article will walk you through how to prepare for the search, and the pros and cons of each option, to help determine which is best for you.
Step 1: Perform a needs assessment.
Start by understanding your needs inside and out. Take an organized inventory of your current software functionality and your anticipated needs. Then ask yourself the following questions:
- What is working with your current system?
- What is not working with your current system?
- What functions do you think you will need in the next 5 years?
- What functions have you seen and liked in other systems?
- What problems do you wish your current system would solve?
- In a perfect world, what does your ideal solution look like?
Take a look at existing software programs for functionality that you might not even know about yet. This is your wishlist, so make it a good one! Do an online search for software and programs that fit the features you need. This might include:
- Word processing
- Business invoicing
- Customer billing
- Payroll and human resources
- Asset management
- Inventory management
- Website content management
- Customer relationship management
- Sales management
Take your time with this step of the process. If you’re going to invest in the software you will want to be absolutely sure that the custom software is meeting the exact specifications you need it to. Once you have a really clear picture of what you need and expect from the software solution, you can start comparing the options.
Step 2: Plan your budget.
Your next step should be a budget outline. Knowing how much you have to spend on software development costs will help you narrow the field. When you are thinking about budget, it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind. Go beyond what you have to spend right now and consider a cost/benefit analysis. Updated software can streamline many business procedures so that your operation can get leaner and more cost-efficient.
For example, if a custom software solution can handle inbound sales leads that could cut back on the number of hours that you will need an answering service. The projected cost savings should be added into your software budget so you have an accurate picture of how to scale the system and business operations.
Go back to your needs assessment and look through any processes and costs that professional software development will resolve. Factor this in so that you have the most accurate budget possible.
Step 3: Start comparison shopping.
Once you have all of your needs and budget data lined up, it is time to start shopping. The process of looking for off-the-shelf software is different than shopping for custom-built solutions. Because online feature comparison is readily available for prepackaged programs, you can start with those products to see if a good fit already exists before going the custom route. Also keep in mind that, depending on the features you need, a custom solution may end up being more cost-effective. This is especially true when your business would need multiple pre-packaged programs needed to achieve the same result.
Start by looking into pre-packaged software packages online. There are many online review sites where you can find testimonials from other business owners who have used the software. Look for user comments that match up with your needs, and how the software did or did not meet them. Also, keep an eye out for common problems or red flags. How much would those software shortcomings cost you? Could a custom solution resolve those issues? Cross-reference the software feature list against your needs list to see if it matches up. If it does, a pre-packaged program may be a good fit.
Pre-packaged software product “pros”:
- Cheaper than most bespoke software.
- Most programs include updates to keep the software compatible with the latest operating systems.
- Programs are affordable for one or two specific needs.
- Many offer ongoing technical support and user forums to help you get started and troubleshoot future issues.
- Get started right away with immediate “plug and play” installation.
Pre-packaged software product “cons”:
- Custom software development.
- Functionality is limited to one or two specific needs/functions per program.
- You may outgrow the software and have to repurchase.
- Most off-the-shelf programs don’t “speak to” each other and may require regular data imports and exports to keep them synced up.
- If the developer stops producing the software, you will be stuck with an outdated system and may have to repurchase.
Professional software development may be the best solution for you if you:
- Need a system that can scale with your business.
- Expect multiple functions from the software.
- Want a system that can keep all of your data integrated and synced in one place.
If you think product development software may be the best route for your business, find a software developer and request software development consulting. Some developers will offer complimentary consultations, while some will charge for the time. Prepare for the meeting with your needs assessment and budget. Ask questions based on the needs assessment. Also, get a feel for your chemistry with the developer and/or development company. These are the people you will be working with and relying on to deliver your solution. The relationship is an important one for your future success.
Find out what type of support you can expect. Ask about turnaround time and future change costs. Ask what kind of software training and support is included. Inquire about past development projects that have solved similar problems for other clients. Keep in mind that when it comes to custom development every project is different - including yours! Don’t expect a developer to be able to produce a “mirror client” that has the exact same needs. After all, unique requirements are why you’re talking to a custom developer in the first place.
Be confident asking for references, but, again, don’t expect a perfect one-to-one match. References are more useful in giving you a sense of the developer’s customer service acumen. This is a big investment. Make sure that you’re comfortable and satisfied with the developer’s qualifications. If you’re not, move on. There are many developers out there to choose from.
Custom software “pros”:
- Built to your unique specifications and needs - the sky is the limit.
- Able to grow with your business without having to switch to new or different systems.
- One centralized system for multiple business needs.
- You own the software.
- Developers can make adjustments to individual functions if they’re not working for you.
Custom software “cons”:
- More expensive than off-the-shelf software.
- Long-term commitment to the system.
- Lengthy development timeline - you have to wait for the system to be built.
- Troubleshooting/debugging done in real time as issues arise.
Investing in software is one of the most important choices businesses make. It can make your systems and employees more efficient, or it can hold them back. By first understanding your needs and expectations when it comes to business software, you can make the best choice for your day-to-day operations and big-picture goals. With constantly evolving pre-packaged options and a growing number of sophisticated development firms and freelance developers, software is a buyers market. Development firms, individual developers, and software companies are all competing for your business. A solid needs assessment, budget analysis, and informed comparison shopping will ensure that you’re making a software decision that you can feel good about for years to come.