Custom Software: Should you build or buy?

For any business, deciding between software applications is a choice often based on efficiency expectations and one’s own proficiency. Since companies require different processes to manage several projects, specific niche software is required for project execution. Quite often the choice of software is between off-the-shelf or customized bespoke software. So, let’s walk through some of the key differences between them.

Target Audience

Off-the-shelf software is generally commercial and mass produced. For example, Microsoft Office Suite addresses specific needs and is targeted towards a mass audience. On the other hand, custom software is for the needs of a specific industry or company. For example, museums have their own software to meet database or archival functions.


Economically, production costs of off-the-shelf software is leveraged easily through license and mass market capacity. Custom software, however, has one target customer who has to financially account for the entire product.

Required Updates

Off-the-shelf software generally requires paid updates past the introductory period. This means that the software can easily become obsolete. Custom software does not have such requirements and is updated according to what a business needs.

Framework & Design

Off-the-shelf software comes with a premade standard design and framework. A standard build enables quick and easy familiarity with the software and generalizes all the projects that require the software’s capability. Custom or bespoke software targets specific needs or project aspects outside of the given standard. This software caters to specific requirements while building a high level of performativity for the company.

Advantages of Off-the-Shelf Software

Since the software is pre-produced, it is considerably cheaper upfront and generally has a set price which includes development. Additionally, it is usually targeted at a wide audience, so the software tends to be rich in basic features. This makes it more accessible and efficient for some business - a company does not need a software development team when existing software can meet your needs.

Its large audience also means it would be easier to find a user community online. This makes troubleshooting simple errors or tasks easy through shared reports and tutorials that can be found with a simple search. The software manufacturer handles all aspects of the software including development, design, sales, customer service, updates and testing. This vendor is thus the go-to for anything related to the software. A business looking to resolve troubleshooting needs to only address its issues with the vendor's support team.

Often, a basic online support level is even included with a warranty or maintenance contract within the product, though larger enterprise suites may charge extra for this. Installation and deployment of off-the-shelf software is generally quick as long as you are running it in a supported environment and for a supported purpose. For many simple use cases, this means that a business can thus meet most of its initial software needs quickly. Finally, small business that only need specific software functions do better with off-the-shelf software because it can be built around their budget and staff.

Disadvantages of Off-the-Shelf Software

As quick and easy as it can seem, off-the-shelf software is not always the right choice. While the initial cost is low, off-the-shelf software will have additional - and in some cases, higher - projected costs in the long run. Upgrading the software is an assured expenditure since licensed software quickly becomes obsolete. This means license renewals, additional support contracts, and in some cases risky updates and migrations. Since you're buying a product aimed at a wide market, you often pay for features that go unused but add to the total cost, driving inefficiencies.

As a business grows and transitions or expands, the software can quickly become a limitation. Often times, it can fail to meet the additional demands placed on your team, because it is costly or even impossible to customize. Since off-the-shelf software is pre-packaged, there are several pre-installed functions and features. Unfortunately, this means that you'll either need to spend time configuring and testing it before it goes into production - adding to the time before it begins to provide any value - or else you'll need to make constant changes in the months after you roll it out, frustrating your team and driving down confidence and usage.

The idea behind off-the-shelf software is that it should address the most commonly requested features by the industry it serves, frequently in whatever manner the largest players use. That means often times, due to the cheaper prices, businesses will model their own functions according to the software’s functionality, rather than their own needs and processes which can cripple business innovation and uniqueness.

Lastly, and representing perhaps the largest risk,the software itself will eventually phase out into obsolescence. At this point, the business will need to find a new tool that meets the same requirements and begin the process all over again - often with heavy changes to process and efficiency to suit the new software. Therefore, the limited lifespan of mass produced off-the-shelf software is a serious concern.

Advantages of Custom Software

Businesses can meet target goals by having tailored, custom software features. Solutions relating to functions, features, security and processes are all customized according to need. It also allows a business to keep adding desired solutions and features as they are needed. Since everything is tailored to your business, it is easier to familiarize the staff to the software, and it can be built to suit whatever environment it will be run in. The business is also the sole owner of the software, enabling direct vendor support as well as an evolving solution model for error management and troubleshooting.

Custom software is beneficial for business proficiency since it can be developed with a software language and platform tailored to business needs. The business’s increased performance using customized tooling allows for an added advantage in a competitive market. Updates are easily controlled since the business is the direct vendor. This means there will be no obsolescence apart from when the business itself decides to phase out hardware or software, but desired changes can be made quickly, easily and efficiently. You get only the features that your business needs, reducing waste and making planning and budgeting much more straightforward.

Disadvantages of Custom Software

Initial costs when building core essentials and features tend to be very high. If the installation is outsourced from a software development company then any changes or upgrades can become billable costs. You'll also need to form and maintain a relationship with a developer who understands the software's design. Custom software will also will not have an online community dedicated to self-help troubleshooting, though this can be greatly mitigated by choosing a developer who is responsive and provides thorough and useful documentation, as well as enabling a good flow of communication from your team about the tool.

In Conclusion

The choice between custom vs off-the-shelf software is not always as simple as a comparison of costs or features. It should be a decision unique to each business, and with a purpose of solving a critical problem in a way that works for the company, and does not limit it's effectiveness or expose the business to risk.

If you're experiencing your own build-vs-buy decision, or planning a software project or implementation, reach out and let's talk; Synaxa will always answer questions and provide guidance at no obligation to you.