06/08/2017

Should You Build or Buy Your Small Business Software?

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Building custom software is expensive and can trap you in a cycle of constant expenditures. Modern cloud apps are offering a new style of convenience with automatic updates to their configurable, subscription-based services. The number of subscription-based, on-demand services available to consumers is increasing every day – think Netflix, Amazon Prime, or your mobile phone plan.

With the time and cost required, only companies with very unique business requirements and an in-house IT team should consider building their own systems from scratch. For most small and medium-sized businesses, third-party vendors with an off-the-shelf solution provide the best value and results, with low ongoing costs and maintenance requirements.

There's still a trick to getting the top-of-the-line technology working for you because these superior and low-cost apps (for example Wild Apricot, the cloud-based membership management software provider we recommend here at NewPath Consulting) are market leaders because they specialize in only one part of your business.

Therefore you may need several of them to cover all aspects of your operation, sales and marketing. But never fear! These brilliant stand-alone solutions are designed to be bundled with other best-of-breed software solutions so they can plug 'n play with some simple integration.

Yes this requires some technical know-how, but since those capabilities are built right in with web hooks and APIs, it is always going to be less expensive to integrate these cloud apps than developing and maintaining a home-grown system.

Because small businesses and organizations have limited time and capabilities, they can use just a portion of a service’s capability until they are ready to adopt it further. They also pay only for what they use because the pricing models of the tools are matched to the extent the services are actually used.

But what about the person who doesn’t want to pay for even one unused feature, but instead wants a custom-built option that’s impeccably matched to their organization’s needs?

Wild Apricot explored this build versus buy question on their blog, specifically as it relates to membership software. This is such an important topic that we thought we’d open it up to all types of software, and continue the conversation here.

Remember that whether you build or buy, you’re still responsible for configuring the tool to your own needs. You'll still need installation, configuration and adjustments over time - the maintenance is your responsibility. Just think of the last time you bought a new phone or computer and you spent time configuring and personalizing it just for you.

To help you make an informed build versus buy decision, we’ll start by grouping Wild Apricot’s 10 Build versus Buy considerations into three main areas: people, process, and technology.

People

Technical expertise - How easily will you and your staff be able to use the tool? Is there support available? Be sure that any solutions you buy have excellent support teams that answer your team’s questions quickly and accurately.

Staff turnover - Will the same people be managing the technology over time, or will people be transient? Even if you anticipate high turnover rates your systems can be built to provide the training documents, videos and forums to get new people up to speed quickly.  

Process

Urgency - How urgent is your need for a solution? Is this something that has to be up and running in a matter of weeks or months, or do you have a year to roll things out gradually? Either way your staff can learn to use the tools over time but your costs will be initially higher if you roll out all the bells and whistles at once and have to wait for your staff or volunteers to adapt.

Budget size - The Wild Apricot article professes that without a large budget ($10,000) you shouldn’t consider building your own solution, but we disagree. NewPath’s Alex Sirota notes, “If you can build something small that just addresses your need, it can be more cost-effective than buying something that has more features than you need.”

And just because you have a $10,000 budget, you may not have the time, people, and technical expertise to launch your own software and train people how to use it. People and time are important lines on your budget as well.

Here’s how we evaluate the budget versus time question:

Build-versus-buy

  • If you have a lot of time and a healthy budget, building your own solution addresses all your needs. However, this will require steady maintenance of your code and that may be more expensive than you initially considered.
  • If you have limited time and a large budget, consider buying - not just one product, but a suite of tools that work well together.
  • If you have limited time and money, always choose to buy a software solution.
  • If you have a low budget and can take some time to configure and learn the solutions on offer, consider taking the time to buy, learn and configure the ideal solution over time. The “build” here involves configuring integration between services, which in most cases doesn’t involve any coding. Many NewPath customers are in this quadrant.

Technology

Integration with other systems - A lot of systems can work with each other, but unless they’re built that way out of the box they require more time to configure. We suggest that you only look at those solutions with the built-in capacity to integrate with other systems. At NewPath we've done extensive investigations into all of the software we promote to be sure they function as needed, 'play well with others' and have responsible teams developing them so that they are always well maintained to be current and safe.

Specialized features - Similarly, you may want really specific features that don’t seem to be available in anything you can buy off the shelf. Generally, if you can sacrifice a bit of your ideal vision, you can get something ready-made that will still be a big improvement from what you’re working with now. If you can’t sacrifice any features, this is the time to start investigating the cost of custom-built software.

Security - This is almost always better when you buy because you’ve delegated security to a company that has thoroughly secured its products. If you’re building your own solutions, you have to build and test security for yourself and that requires a lot of time and special skills.

In the build versus buy software decision, these are the three points that will be most important for small businesses without many internal resources:

  1. Long-term reliability - When you buy into an existing product, especially a cloud-based solution with a solid reputation where there is proven long-term reliability. That may not be the case when you build something - it may be state-of-the art in the current landscape, but will it stand the test of time, or will you outgrow the capabilities quickly, forcing you to spend more money on it in a few short years? The guarantee of long-term reliability is why software-as-a-service (SaaS) products are priced the way they are. You’re essentially buying a contract, an insurance policy that the service will be constantly improved.
  2. Commitment risk - When you buy, there is not as much commitment risk. SaaS products usually require much lower commitment, and with many of them you can try before you buy. When you build you have to be in 100% and able to get a return on that commitment. The less commitment you want to make, the more likely a buy solution is the way to go.
  3. System support - For a system that will require a lot of maintenance, building is a recipe for disaster unless you have the budget and people in place for that long-term support. When you buy, there are support options for various budget sizes.

Build versus buy examples

  1. Websites - Template site builders like Wix are free (with low-cost plans for enhanced features) and easy to use. Or should you build something by getting a website host and installing WordPress yourself? Consider this: the Quick Start Wizard WordPress from GoDaddy can configure a website even faster than building one from a template in Wix, and websites built on WordPress run faster! Consider how important speed and performance are, and how your website will reflect on your brand.
  2. E-commerce - There are many e-commerce solutions on the market today. Solutions like Shopify allow you to build out your website and e-commerce systems without touching one line of code, but you do have to delegate 100% of your system to a third party. Many small e-commerce shops are completely fine running on a service like that but once you start to require more extensive features - like inventory, customization and integration with marketing automation - you will need to choose an alternative like WooCommerce, a WordPress plugin, or even Magento.
  3. Membership sites - Buying Wild Apricot is a no-brainer for small to medium-sized organizations - it’s an all-in-one solution that gets you up and running in a few months. Yes, you can cobble together similar results with WordPress plugins, but do you really want the responsibility of coordinating that, especially if you have low tech expertise and a low budget for support?

In today’s technology landscape, the build versus buy decision isn’t just about building from scratch. You can build solutions by buying several services and configuring them to suit your needs. There is a vast spectrum of choices that could include buying a few services, building a few integrations, and choosing the sweet spot that will work for your organization. By pulling together a suite of cloud tools, even when you buy, you’re building a solution that’s based on a solid foundation of best practices.

At NewPath Consulting we help people navigate the build versus buy decision. We work with our customers to build solutions by buying tools that require the least customization. We come up with the perfect combination of tools that interact to meet the company’s specific needs. So if you don’t want to take the risk of building or managing your software tools internally, look for a company like NewPath to choose, configure and integrate the best products for your small business.

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