Getting the right software can be a real challenge. This article explains what to consider when reviewing if to use an off-the-shelf or custom solution. It also explains why using software is essential in all aspects of your business.

Why Do I Need Software At All?

You should use software to assist or replace your manual processes if you are looking to:

  • Increase Productivity: All of the processes you undertake manually can be done quicker and more accurately with software. All of them.
  • Reduce Cost: As you grow over time, manual processes take longer and need more staff to perform them.
  • Avoid Risks: Doing things manually increases the risk of human error, and opens you up to an unrecoverable service outage in the event of a fire or theft.

But lots of businesses have menial tasks that are quick, easy and not business critical. So when should you look into using software?

The short answer is Immediately. You need to know what’s available and how much it will cost before deciding what to use. Then whether you move to software or not, you need to regularly review this decision.

You already use software to help some parts of your business function, grow and stay safe. You should use software to help all  parts of your business function, grow and stay safe. Your competitors probably do.

What’s Wrong With Using Spreadsheets?

Spreadsheets are great for importing, manipulating and reporting on various data sets, but they’re not a good place to keep your business data.

Using spreadsheets to store key business data can be a recipe for disaster:

  • Over time they grow bigger, take longer to open, become slower to navigate and are more vulnerable to errors and failures.
  • They either don’t allow concurrent user or handle them badly leading to conflicts that aren’t easily remedied.
  • Spreadsheets don’t handle transactional updates or audit changes like a business application would. This means that when errors do occur they’re much harder to spot and even harder to resolve.

When Is Off-The-Shelf The Right Choice?

Whether a ready built off-the-shelf solution is on premises or hosted in the cloud, there are a number of common factors to consider. A comparison of on premises vs hosted solutions will be added as a future article.

Do consider an off-the-shelf solution if:

  • It’s not used in line with a core part of your business.
  • It works consistently across all industries.
  • You can adapt your working practices to be in line with those in the software.
  • You want minimal capital expenditure.

Hosted off-the-shelf software or ‘Software-As-A-Service’ (SAAS) is a relatively cheap and easy way to get started provided you’re happy to base the way you work around what it has to offer. Costs are generally charged on a monthly per-user basis.

Do NOT consider an off-the-shelf solution if:

  • It’s to be used in line with your core service.
  • You want control over changes.
  • You want control over service availability.
  • The software is business critical.
The most important thing to understand is that you don’t own the service or the code.

The provider can completely change the look and feel of it with no prior warning, change the features on offer to you, change what’s available in your package, and add usage restrictions forcing you onto a more expensive plan. This applies to on premises solutions as well, as often vendors will refuse to support old versions of their software, forcing companies to upgrade or continue running old software with no support contract. Using off-the-shelf software gives you no competitive advantage as you have no power to have changes made and your competition could be using the exact same software.

Hosted solution providers can also perform system maintenance when they choose, meaning you could suffer a service outage when it’s most inconvenient.

If the company goes out of business or if they stop maintaining the software you are using you have to start all over again. If this happens or if you decide to migrate to another solution, you could find it very difficult to extract your data ready to import it into your next chosen solution.

When Should I Buy Custom Software?

A custom solution is always the ultimate solution. Multinationals and market leaders will often have a custom solution for every aspect of their business, even those which are common across industries. But they aren’t the right solution for everybody.

Do consider a custom solution if:

  • It is used in line with a core part of your business.
  • You want complete control over how the software functions.
  • You want complete control of when and where the software is available to be used.
  • It is a long term solution.

If you have full control it means your business processes can be turned into a solution that compliments how you work, not the other way around. You will no longer need to store ‘Mobile Number’ in the ‘Fax’ field or look in three different places to see the information that should be accessible from one.

The most important thing to realise is it’s your code. It means you can develop changes in the order you want them, perform updates when you decide they should be done and fix any bugs that are identified immediately.

Finally, and something a lot of companies may not realise. If you own the code and ensure the development company uses the right software to develop it, there are no licensing costs to pay.

Over time custom solutions are the most cost effective solutions.

Do NOT develop a custom solution if:

  • It isn’t used in line with a core part of your business and there is something already available that does exactly what you need.
  • The development cannot be split into modules.
  • You have to pay up front for all of the work.

Custom solutions can appear prohibitively expensive with regards to both time and money. Despite this it is still always worth investigating. Some software companies have various pricing points depending on if a long term support and maintenance contract forms part of the contract. This can help bring down the initial cost of the software.

Be aware. Different software development companies work in different ways. Some still like to write the whole system before they develop it. A far better approach is an agile iterative development process, which means you continually see the software as it’s being developed and can agree to changes as the software progresses. Well managed agile developments will break systems down into manageable modules to allow core elements to be delivered early.


  • Functionality: Custom
  • Cost: Off-the-shelf (short term), Custom (long term)
  • Setup Time: Off-the-shelf
  • Support: Varies on service level agreements
  • Competitive Advantage: Custom

You should now understand that:

  • You should replace or enhance your manual processes with a well maintained and managed software solution.
  • Spreadsheet should NOT be used to store data.
  • Off-the-shelf software can be a good choice for industry standard processes.
  • Custom solutions should be used for all business critical systems.