We’ve all faced this dilemma before — do we invest in an expensive, custom-built solution or go with a cheaper, off-the-shelf option? It’s a question that gives every builder of internal software pause. Because while custom software can be optimized for your needs, it often turns out clunky and costly. Off-the-shelf solutions promise convenience but can become just as frustrating once you discover their limitations.
So which is better for your business — clunky custom or clunky off-the-shelf? I recently faced this decision when shopping for a campervan for weekend getaways. Let me walk you through my thought process and eventual solution. The parallels to choosing internal software may surprise you.
Campervan Shopping — Custom, DIY or Off-the-Shelf?
Picture this — I live surrounded by the rolling hills of central Portugal, where the pace of life drifts as slowly as the clouds overhead. A campervan makes perfect sense for zipping off on spontaneous adventures across the Iberian Peninsula. With the beaches of Portugal’s Algarve region just 3 hours away and iconic cities like Madrid and Barcelona a short overnight drive, the possibilities are endless.
But what kind of campervan to get? Ready-made RVs offered convenience but were optimized for long-term living. Plus, the steep price tags had me cringing. Doing a DIY conversion on a minivan seemed like a budget way to get exactly what I wanted. But finding the time for an intensive custom project while running a business was tough. And watching a few YouTube tutorials confirmed I needed to gain the necessary handy skills first.
Paying a professional campervan conversion company was another route. But with long waitlists and premium pricing, this custom option also needed to make more financial sense.
I ultimately settled on a barebones minivan. While not purpose-built for camping, it gave me flexible utility — a daily driver that transforms into a modest sleeper van for weekends away. There is no need to constantly uninstall seats or hunch over in a cramped space. Yet I can still escape to nature with a simple bed set up in the back. Was it my dream camper? No. But it let me balance priorities like convenience, comfort, and cost.
In hindsight, had time and money been no object, I would have hired a pro to custom convert a van to match my adventuring needs. The extra investment would have paid dividends in a specially tailored rig. But for now, the minivan satisfies my goal of occasional weekend getaways across Europe. The choices apply equally when selecting software.
The Tradeoffs Between Custom And Off-The-Shelf
Business software comes in custom-built and off-the-shelf models, like RVs and vans. Custom software delivers an optimized fit but is time-consuming and costly to create. Off-the-shelf may get you rolling faster but has inherent limitations you can’t change.
Here are just a few reasons why you might now want to build custom software:
- Software aging: Custom software needs to be constantly rewritten due to aging programming languages and framework
- High costs: Building an internal developer platform may work well for small internal apps but can be expensive for more complex, high-level projects
- Inefficient use of resources: Developers spend more than 30% of their time building internal apps, according to a survey by Retool
- Opportunity costs: Building custom internal software may divert resources and focus from other important business initiatives, potentially resulting in missed opportunities
- Hidden costs: Building custom proprietary software may appear cheaper at first glance, but there are often hidden or unexpected costs associated with building your own business system
- Maintenance challenges: Custom internal software can be expensive to maintain and may require ongoing support from the IT team
- Inaccurate budget estimations: Poor internal communication can lead to inaccurate budget estimations for custom software development projects
On the other hand, off-the-shelf products have their own flaws:
- Lack of customization: Off-the-shelf products may not fully meet the unique needs and requirements of a specific organization, leading to inefficiencies and workarounds
- Inflexibility: Off-the-shelf products may not be as flexible or adaptable as custom-built solutions, making it difficult for organizations to scale or modify the software as their needs change
- Integration challenges: Off-the-shelf products may not integrate seamlessly with other tools and systems used by the organization, leading to data silos and inefficiencies
- Hidden costs: While off-the-shelf products may appear to be more cost-effective upfront, there can be hidden costs associated with licensing, maintenance, and customization
- Vendor lock-in: Organizations may become dependent on a specific vendor for updates, support, and maintenance, potentially limiting their ability to switch to alternative solutions
- Security risks: Off-the-shelf products may expose organizations to security vulnerabilities if they are not regularly updated and maintained
- Limited competitive advantage: Using off-the-shelf products may not provide organizations with a unique competitive advantage, as competitors may be using the same tools and technologies
- Obsolete technology: Off-the-shelf products may become outdated over time, requiring organizations to invest in new solutions or upgrades
Take an Iterative Approach
Consider starting with an inexpensive off-the-shelf option, just like I purchased a basic minivan. Although not a bespoke solution, you’ll quickly understand your needs and fill gaps with custom integrations later. Does off-the-shelf Basecamp or Asana cover 70% of your project management workflow? Build custom tools in-house to handle the remaining 30% initially.
Betting big on custom software first is risky, like ordering an expensive converted campervan that may not suit your travel style. But after using cheaper off-the-shelf tools for a few months, you can make a more informed decision to eventually invest in custom-built software optimized for your business.
Weigh your priorities — speed, cost, customization — then take an iterative approach. Let me know if you’ve faced similar tradeoffs between out-of-the-box and custom-made solutions! What factors swayed your decision and did you have any regrets later on? I’d love to hear your experiences and stories in the comments.
Originally published on Medium.com