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You have an idea for a piece of software, and you think it’s great. This is where many people stop, fearing the complexity of building software. If off-the-shelf software can act as a solution—even a short-term one—it might be possible to give your idea a shot.
Table XI is a custom software development company, meaning that we sell the exact opposite of off-the-shelf software, and yet, we help partners decide whether to build vs. buy software. At the end of the day, we want our clients to get the best product for their business. If there are off-the-shelf solutions that work anywhere near as well as custom software could, we’re going to include them in our product discovery process, even if it means advising ourselves out of a design and development contract. In this article, we’ll walk you through what off-the-shelf software is, how to recognize its advantages and disadvantages and when to opt for it vs. custom software.
What is Off-the-Shelf Software?
The definition of off-the-shelf software is much like the definition of off-the-shelf corn. You can theoretically eat it as-is, but it’s going to be a lot better if you cook it and add seasoning to suit your taste, whether that stops at a little salt or goes full-on elotes.
It’s rare that off-the-shelf software implementation won’t involve some amount of customization. If an existing application already perfectly suits your needs, it’s worth asking whether your product is bringing anything new to the market. That said, even custom off-the-shelf software is often cheaper than a full-blown build, and most off-the-shelf tools are designed to be configurable. Just make sure everyone on your team knows it won’t be as simple as clicking buy and wiping your hands.
The Advantages of Off-the-Shelf Software
Aside from the primary fact that yes, it can save you money depending on the project and the licensing fees, there are four main advantages to off-the-shelf software over custom-made software.
They force you to be honest about your MVP.
When you build something from scratch, you can be loose about a need-to-have vs. a nice-to-have. Off-the-shelf software takes away that privilege, forcing you to consider what you really need to launch.
They allow you to get to market quickly.
If you’re operating in a crowded space — or you think someone else might be working toward the same goal — using software that already exists will potentially allow you to beat others to market.
They can come with external support.
There’s a reason WordPress is so popular — if you have a question, someone has probably answered it. If you need a plugin, someone has probably built it. By opting into an existing community, you get the benefit of its knowledge and resources.
They let you validate your idea before committing to bespoke software.
This last one is our personal favorite. Using off-the-shelf software gives you an opportunity for testing a real product on real users. It may not be as full-featured as the software you eventually hope to build custom, but it will give you a lot more data than the average prototype.
Off-the-shelf software products give you a world of benefits. The time you don’t spend building can be spent improving, marketing, partnering — basically just focusing on the needs of your users and working to meet them. Unfortunately, it’s never quite that clear in real life.
The Disadvantages of Off-the-Shelf Software
The downsides of commercial off-the-shelf software are more often talked about, but that doesn’t make them any less true.
You’re stuck with the functionality they offer.
If video is important to you, but isn’t supported, you’ll have to make do with GIFs. Off-the-shelf applications will usually give you more features than you need, but they’ll rarely give you all the features you want out-of-the-box. This forces you to compromise on your vision, or to pay for costly customizations that may not work when the software upgrades.
It can be hard to make them feel unique and premium.
There’s a reason people spend good money with tailors. Like bespoke clothes, bespoke software is inherently going to look and feel more valuable. If you’re trying to reach an audience with high expectations — or looking to command a high price — it can be difficult to do so with software that’s off-the-shelf.
Your priorities don’t necessarily match the maker’s.
When you don’t own the software, you don’t get to dictate where it goes. There may be a security upgrade or new feature that’s critical to your business … and totally irrelevant to the people working on your base software.
If you do need custom software eventually, you have to swallow the sunk costs.
Off-the-shelf software isn’t always a forever solution. As your product grows, your needs will too, and you may get to a point where switching to custom just makes sense. If that happens, the effort you’ve put into building up your original application becomes at best research costs, at worst sunk costs.
Ultimately, you have to make the decision that’s right for your users, your product and your company — in that order, which raises the stakes even higher. If you don’t build something people will love, any time is wasted time.
Off-the-Shelf Software vs. Custom Software
If you see a clear and obvious winner between off-the-shelf software vs. custom software, congratulations! In reality, you’re more of an exception than the rule. One of our clients needed nothing more than a simple magazine-style app, and we still had to convince them to choose off-the-shelf software instead of paying us to build something custom.
You have to weigh the present against the future. Is it more important to save money and get to market now, even if it might mean repeating some of that work later? Or is it better to take the time and make custom software that will work just as well five years from now as it does today? It’s not an easy question: Not all products last for five years, and very few of them stay the same for that long. Whether you chose to go custom or off-the-shelf, the most important thing is to be honest about what you’re hoping to achieve.
'Whether you chose to go custom or off-the-shelf, the most important thing is to be honest about what you’re hoping to achieve.' - Mark Rickmeier, Table XI Click To Tweet