When to use an Off the Shelf Solution and When to Build Something Custom

Building the perfect-fit, custom solution isn’t always the right choice for you or for you right now. If there’s an off-the-shelf solution that works for you, it may very well be the right choice. However, when you have something truly unique to bring to market or your scale has gotten to such a point that it no longer makes fiscal sense, then it’s time to build something custom.

Full Transcript Below:

Alexandra:

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Bixly Tech Tuesday. My name is Alexandra and I’m the Director of Marketing here at Bixly. Today we’re going to be talking about the differences between custom software and maybe finding a solution that’s third-party off the shelf that will still satisfy your needs. Chris and Andrew have a ton of tips and tricks about how to find something that might work for you versus figuring out if you really do need to go with something custom, let’s hear what they have to say.

Cris:

I was thinking about building applications and how there’s so much going on out there when you talk about a third-party application versus a custom application, and where do plugins come into play? Is that a custom thing or is that an off the shelf? There’s so many things out there. So for you and I today, I thought it would be worthwhile to A, kind of define what is off the shelf? What does custom mean? And then also, is there a reason that you’d want to use one versus the other? So in your mind, what is an off the shelf solution? What is a custom solution?

Andrew:

Yeah, so an off the shelf solution is a software solution that you’re in many cases signing up for a subscription for, or you’re paying a one-time fee for. But the idea is that it’s a piece of software that you’re just using as is. And if there is software off the shelf that suits your business needs, the wise thing then is to go with that software. We don’t try to build QuickBooks, we just use QuickBooks because it’s already there.

Andrew:

A custom solution though, is a perfect fit software solution that’s developed to specifically fit your needs or to be a perfect fit to your customer’s needs. And pretty much everything about it is custom. Now there are building blocks that are used to put things together. There’s third party libraries for doing different common functionality that we do leverage. But in general, the software is custom tailored towards your exact needs, to be a perfect fit solution.

Cris:

So this is where things like plugins would come into play. So if I’m using plugins, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m using an off the shelf solution. It actually probably means that I had built something custom, but a piece I’m actually having to plug in or augment with some sort of a more off the shelf?

Andrew:

Yes, exactly. And so a good example of that would be, maybe we are building a custom web app for you that allows you to take reservations and things like that. But there’s an aspect of that where the customer needs to pick a date on a calendar. Well, there’s lots of third-party plugins and things like that that are like calendar type widgets. We’re not going to go write our own custom calendar widget for you. We’re going to advise you to use this service, whether it’s free or not, but to leverage this third party service and plug that into your website and then the rest of it we’re going to build out custom for your needs.

Cris:

And it’s not that you couldn’t just go write a calendar application, but why would you?

Andrew:

Why would you? Yeah, exactly.

Cris:

If you can plug it in. Or like you said, reuse something that someone’s already created, so that seems reasonable.

Andrew:

Yeah.

Cris:

So if you’re going out there and you’re custom building an application, as opposed to building something off the shelf, let’s assume that it makes sense to build custom and we’ll circle back on maybe reasons why you might want to go off the shelf.

Andrew:

Yeah.

Cris:

But for the sake of talking custom, what are some of the things that you kind of want to research or ideas you want to be thinking through to know if you need to maybe utilize some of these third party plugins?

Andrew:

So once you understand your app and what the different major features are of it, it allows us to work with you to help determine if there are third party plugins that do this. So when a client comes to us and they want us to build something for them, one of the first things that I’ll do is look at what parts of that already exist. And it may be that there’s an entire software suite which already exists in which case we recommend they go with that because there’s no point in reinventing the wheel in most cases. Or there may just be certain parts of that, that already exist and will help the client identify that. Like, it makes sense to leverage this calendar widget and whatever a plugin that might exist, maybe for picking paint colors, or it could be any number of things I could come up with.

Andrew:

So it’s just a matter of researching, identifying the features that are going to be part of your app or your solution, and then researching what of those already exist on the market. And does it jive with the frameworks we’re going to use and that sort of thing. So it’s essentially a research project that we will help you with.

Cris:

Gotcha. So the research is, does this make sense with what I’m trying to build?

Andrew:

Yeah.

Cris:

Probably cost comes into play too, am I trying to look for and research, these third-party plugins that are free.

Andrew:

Yeah.

Cris:

You offered that earlier. They could be free, they could cost something. So how much budget do I actually have for third-party plugins probably plays into the research process. And then I would say familiarity, support of the actual plugin or third-party component or piece that you’re going to plug in. Is it something that we, as Bixly know how to support and have maybe used before? Is it really bleeding edge new cusp, has zero support on it? All of those things I would think are important to research because you might want to have the most leading, cutting edge tools that you’re utilizing that also helps make your custom application right there in the forefront and ahead of everything else that everyone else is doing.

Andrew:

And even more common than using third-party plugins is using third-party services.

Cris:

Got it.

Andrew:

So it’s not very common for a client to want to be able to have their, let’s say their mobile app or web app send out emails, send out text messages, maybe have bug tracking or if there’s error reports and things like that. So there’s plenty of third-party services, Send Grid and Mail [inaudible 00:05:39], and all sorts of ones that will send emails, or like Twilio will send text messages for you. And so we’ll help you identify those things, help you kind of assess the costs like, okay, you’re looking at sending 10,000 text messages a day, so you better budget around at least X per month. But those kinds of things, in most cases, it doesn’t make for us to write those for you.

Andrew:

Or like I touched on the error reporting tools. You may want to have a whole suite of determining where the error occurred, what the user was doing at the time, maybe getting a screenshot and all of those things can be wrapped up in third party services like Sentry that most of our clients don’t even know exist. And so rather than telling you, yeah let’s do an extra three months of development to build out this whole remote monitoring portal, we can help point you towards something that already exists. So using third-party services, third-party plugins, is really a good way that we can let our clients kind of outsource some of the functionality of their app without going custom on the entire thing.

Cris:

Gotcha. And again, I’m a customer. I’m not extremely technical, is there a difference between a plugin and a service? Is it like a semantics thing? Are they one in the same? Like what are your thoughts on that?

Andrew:

Yeah, so they are different. A service is some sort of process that’s running on someone else’s server somewhere. And typically it does things kind of in batches.

Cris:

Okay.

Andrew:

So sending text messages would be a really good example. Maybe we send a message to it that says, send these 10,000 text messages and then it will in relatively real time churn through those things, send us back notifications as text messages were delivered, maybe as they were opened, if the user clicks a link in it. So that’s a service, some kind of third-party service running in the background on somebody else’s server. As opposed to, a plugin is typically like referred to as a widget or some sort of usable thing that you kind of drop into your website and it exists within your website. Yeah.

Cris:

Interesting. So we’ve talked to custom a lot, obviously. And this may make sense for you as a company, as a client to actually go down the custom road. So let’s touch on that real quickly, why would I want to do custom as opposed to off the shelf? We’ve touched a bit, but what are the main high points of why I go custom instead of just getting something right off the shelf paying for a monthly subscription and I’m one and done.

Andrew:

Yeah. So the biggest reason people do custom is because an off the shelf solution doesn’t already exist. And that’s one of the first things we help the clients assess when they come to us is, is that true? Is there not a good off the shelf solution? So if you go with custom, the reason to do that would be, you need a perfect fit solution. You have some very unique needs and we can help you build something that perfectly addresses those needs. Also, just the ROI of it comes into play. So as we’re talking to clients initially, and kind of doing that initial advisory consult that you’ll do with them, just what are the economics of this? So are you going to have five users that are using this mobile app? Does it make sense to build something custom? And the only reason I say five users, is because maybe it’s like an internal type thing.

Cris:

Okay.

Andrew:

But does it make sense where you’re going to have enough users using this and enough ROI coming back through it to actually justify the custom development? So you really have to look at the financial side of this too.

Cris:

That’s great. So financial: I always get from customers, “Well, I was thinking of a custom build something because I was looking at this off the shelf solution and it’s going to be like 1099 a month per user. And I have like 50 users, so I was thinking I would just custom build instead.” Why is that’s, maybe, not a sound reason to build custom? Because it sounds like you’re worried about the cost of, again, 50 users at $10.99 a month, which isn’t actually that expensive.

Andrew:

Right.

Cris:

How does that compare?

Andrew:

Yeah. Custom is vastly more expensive than using an off the shelf solution.

Cris:

Okay.

Andrew:

Typically it’s smaller scales too. And I can get into that in a second, but yeah, I’ve had people come to me too and say like, “Oh man, this solution over here is $30,000. That’s a lot of money. So we want to build it custom.” Well, the company spent way more than $30,000 to build that thing. They’ve probably spent millions or tens of millions. So to try to replicate that as custom is going to be vastly more expensive.

Andrew:

Custom is really about: it doesn’t exist, and I need a perfect solution. It is never a money saving solution up front. Now kind of the caveat on that is I have had clients come to us and say, ‘We’re using an off the shelf solution that works well for us. And it made economical sense when we were at a thousand units. But now that we’re approaching a million units that $10.99 a month is just astronomical and we can afford to custom build this solution every year, how much money we’re spending.” So yes, if you’ve been very successful and grown to a large scale, then there may be a savings in building it yourself. But that’s not a startup type scenario. That’s more of, like, a mature business scenario.

Cris:

So tens, hundreds, 50 type users, it might actually be a very good cost solution to go with off the shelf, again, if it gives you everything that you need in your service, but it sounds like as you’re starting to grow and you’re getting to thousands of users, that’s where it gets cost prohibitive.

Andrew:

Yeah.

Cris:

So pivoting off of that cost seems to be a reason that we could talk about, well, I would maybe want to do an off the shelf solution as opposed to custom, what are some other reasons that someone would go with off the shelf as opposed to building custom, besides price?

Andrew:

Well off the shelf makes sense if the off the shelf solution fits your needs, it’s if you’re at a small enough scale and the off the shelf solution fits your needs, then I would almost always steer the client towards that direction. But yeah, off the shelf is very convenient because you’re, in many cases, leveraging the maturity, taking advantage of the maturity of the company that built that, again, to kind of go back to the QuickBooks example. It’s a very mature software, there’s not a need to reinvent the wheel. So you’re going with a product that has most likely been around for many years.

Cris:

And you’re launching to market immediately really?

Andrew:

Right.

Cris:

Because you’re going, you’re signing up. And you’re like, here’s my 10 users.

Andrew:

Yeah.

Cris:

Here’s my credit card info. And you’re done, and it’s there.

Andrew:

Right. And I was talking with a client the other day who we were having this debate between they wanted to take donations. They wanted to allow their clients to quickly spin up donation pages. And there was a solution, a third-party solution that did that. And it has all sorts of cool features. Like how much have we raised towards our goal? What people have donated, ties into social media, there’s all of this very rich, mature functionality to it. So it was this debate between, do we leverage that or do we want to have complete control over the solution by building our own? We’re going to build our own donations pages. And it would have far less features because to build out all those features would have been cost prohibitive, but everything’s tightly integrated with the rest of their system where we’re not having to rely on kind of weaker third-party API APIs to pull data and move it back and forth.

Andrew:

We’ve got this tightly coupled perfect solution. And so we had to weigh different things like obviously budget and timeframe, but also do we need all these other features? Are there clients going to be willing to pay the $30 a month to sign up for this third-party donation service? Should it just be wrapped in? How would we even handle charging for this, combining these two services together? So there’s a lot that goes into that. And also too, something to consider with the custom versus off the shelf is if your units are too low. So like in the case of the self-service kiosk, I was like a payment kiosk.

Cris:

Okay.

Andrew:

Anytime someone comes to me and says, “I want to do this custom solution. There’s nothing else that’s like it.” I talked with a guy one time who wanted to have it like, rent paddle boards and stuff. Like there was really not a solution out there, not a good off the shelf kiosk paddleboard rental system.

Cris:

Okay.

Andrew:

As you can imagine.

Cris:

It doesn’t exist. Interesting.

Andrew:

But it was like, yeah and we want to build it for two kiosks. Well, there was so much custom and hardware engineering that was going to go into this, that it just didn’t make economic sense. If you’re going to deploy a hundred or a thousand it makes sense. So having too many units, having too few, you’ve kind of got to weight what’s the user base going to be like for this?

Cris:

Gotcha.

Andrew:

Yeah.

Cris:

So really it seems like as we’re wrapping here that there’s a lot that goes into choosing to do custom versus doing something that’s more off the shelf and it’s not an easy type answer. So do the research, hopefully like we touched on the points that really you want to see, where does budget come into play? How much time you have, I would say go check out some of our other videos on this, but when you’re actually building and estimating and trying to figure out what it’s going to take to get to market, keep in mind that custom solutions generally take upwards of three or more months, they are 60K or more usually to develop, whereas an off the shelf solution, depending on what your needs are, they might be that or less. So always kind of keep in mind what you’re trying to do.

Cris:

And I would also say just the big, last little kind of piece when you’re out there trying to research, is go ask people, “Hey, I’m trying to build X, Y, Z.” And if they immediately say, “Oh, like Facebook.” “Oh, you mean like Instagram?” “Oh you mean like Uber.” It might already exist. So if you were thinking of custom build, possibly rethink that and pivot, how am I different? And also look into, well, can I leverage one of these services or is there a third-party that kind of looks like this that I can maybe make more my own and fill the needs? So those are my thoughts as we wrap up, anything else in your mind?

Andrew:

Well, that’s a good point and that’s a very common topic of conversation. And so as you come to us to talk about these projects like this, it’s not on you to necessarily know whether you need a custom solution or an off the shelf solution, we’re going to help you make that decision. But it is going to be on you to do the research in your industry and really understand your industry. And so those will be the questions we’ll help ask you and kind of probe with and push back and okay, what else is like this? Boy that kind of sounds like this other thing, what helps you differentiate from that? And that’s really the benefit of doing a consult with someone like Cris, to help you just kind of validate these business ideas and make sure that you just get a different set of eyes and a different perspective on them.

Alexandra:

Thank you for joining us for this episode of Bixly Tech Tuesday. If you have any questions about what we shared today, go ahead and leave those in the comment section down below. In addition, we have a link for our free custom software guide, which will help you really plan out your project right the first time. You can also go to our website, Bixly.com and even sign up for a free hour consultation with Cris. Until next time, this has been an episode of Bixly Tech Tuesday.