Do I need custom software?

Man confused by plans for a custom software system

As veterans of the custom software industry, our team has encountered countless questions about the creation of custom software solutions. However, few questions are as difficult to answer as the very first one.

“Do I need custom software?”

Software is wildly complex, both from an engineering perspective, as well as a business value perspective. Today’s applications can touch so many aspects of an organization that accurately gauging the investment can be a challenge. On top of that, no two engineering firms are the same. Some may provide ultra-specialized engineering services for one aspect of the project, while others may provide broader, more consultative services that cover more of the project scope.

The natural reaction to attempting to process too many choices is to intuit the answer. To try to “feel” that the variables are pointing one direction or another. This is dangerous as it leads to Confirmation Bias, giving you the impression that all the information you discover appears to point in the direction you want it to point.

In this article, we’ll discuss some tangible aspects to consider that will provide a framework for making the decision. Keep in mind, this is too complex of a subject to cover in one article. Our hope is that this information provides valuable measures that help you feel more confident about the process.

Analyze the “Why” Behind Your Custom Software

Every software project begins with the same thing: a problem.

Unfortunately, people are good at solving problems.

Take a minute to think through the last problem you solved. It can be anything. Maybe your phone wasn’t working, or your car was making a weird noise. Whatever it was, think about how you instinctually responded when you discovered the issue. I’m willing to bet that the first thing you did was immediately start trying to figure out the underlying cause.

Did you mull it over in your head, vetoing unlikely scenarios and coming up with new explanations. Maybe you googled the issues, trying to find others who have solved this problem. Whatever path you took, its very likely that you got sucked into finding a solution without paying much attention to the problem its self.

People are hardwired to solve problems. We’re good at it, and by and large, we enjoy it. Unfortunately, that aptitude leads us to dive into solutions, while giving the problem only a cursory glance. Maybe the cost to fix the problem isn’t worth it? Maybe the problem opens up doors to fix other areas? What if there’s an ugly, but effective solution that’s far easier than the obvious solutions?

For small, every day problems, the downside of ignoring this kind of deep analysis is minor. A few hours here, a few dollars there, no big deal. Yet, software projects are huge investments, with vast consequences. Most problems are solvable, but the real question is should you solve them?

Know your problem, ignore the solution

Nothing related to a solution matters at this point. Not the price of the solution, not the technology (or lack there of) of the solution, only the problem. Our team consistently encounters people who “know” what software frameworks we need to use to solve the problem. Yet these people often are not able to describe the problem in detail. They’ve allowed themselves to dive into the solution without truly knowing the value of the problem, which makes the decision little more than a gamble. Before moving forward, these are some of questions you should be exploring:

  • How many people does this problem effect?
  • How much time/money do you lose from these effects?
  • Are there 2nd or 3rd parties affected by the primary party’s issues? How much time/money do you lose there as well?
  • Are there multiple facets to this problem? If so, which is the most valuable to solve?
  • Are there adjacent issues that you can address in tandem with the primary issues?

The more you can understand the problem, the more you can assist other’s to build a good solution.

Why knowing your problem is so critical

The less you know about the value of the problem, the more you end up guessing about the value of the solution.

At its core, a software project is a continuous cost/benefit problem. You expend X amount of effort for Y amount of return. If done correctly, Y ends up significantly larger than X. Because of this, one of the largest factors in a successful project is how well those involved understand the problem.

The less you know about the value of the problem, the more you end up guessing about the value of the solution. Each decision becomes a gamble, rather than a calculated risk. And you will be making decisions if you continue down this path. As the owner of a project you will face a constant stream of decisions related to the value of your solutions.

Do you sign off on using a 3rd party tool that costs $100/month, but will end up saving 2 months of project work? What if that feature is only solving a problem that costs a handful employees 10 minutes per day? Engineering groups can provide information, and some (Sigao being one of them) can even assist in analyzing those choices. But, the final decision must come from those who understand the problem the best.

The next reason is perhaps the most important. It’s what elevates project outcomes to to their maximum potential:

Extreme understanding of the value of the problem allows for the most creative solutions.

Knowing your problem fosters innovation

Knowing what is and isn’t important allows the engineering team to propose creative solutions. My favorite example of this is what happens in some of our initial discovery meetings. People will often approach us to build a project having already landed on a desired solution. They’ve spent weeks or months imagining a complex solution that addresses ALL their problems, without knowing the value of those problems individually.

This is a common scenario, which we address with an array of discovery questions. We try our best to help our customers refined down the most valuable aspects of their solution. During that process we occasionally encounter situations where the value is so concentrated on one aspect of the problem, it allows us to bypass the majority of their requirements. If only a handful of requirements are worth the investment, why bother with the others?

The results are often eye opening. Given a narrowed scope, the team is free to adopt a more Rapid Testing mindset. We’re able to suggest ideas that may not even involve writing code, but will solve the problem quickly. This allows the customer to assess portions of the solution individually before committing to a large scale system. Sure, these solutions are typically “quick and dirty”, but the amount of value they provide negates the downsides.

Its not uncommon for our customers begin a meeting envisioning a $50k+ system , only to leave the meeting with a way to solve most of their problems for free. All because they were able to recognize the most valuable problems to solve.

That’s the power of understanding your problem. When you know what’s most valuable, you gain the ability to make more intelligent decisions about where you invest your time and money.

Long Term “Why” Behind Your Custom System

One of the biggest issues we struggle with in the software industry is conveying the benefits of a custom solution. It’s difficult for people to get past the initial shock of the price, and a lot of that is because they haven’t truly considered the problem their solving.

Custom software systems are like sports cars. Expensive to build, expensive to maintain, but capable of doing amazing things. Part of knowing your problem is knowing how much the value of the solution builds up over time. If you a development team quotes you $300k for the solution, is that bad? Maybe. What if it will save you $70k per year and will turn a profit in 3 years? What if you’re currently paying $40k/year in subscription costs which will disappear after the project?

Think back to the “adjacent issues” you explored. Could owning your own data provide more opportunities for value over time? Could you later pivot your solution into a product that you then sell to other companies similar to your own?

Time is a powerful factor when considering the problems you’re solving. Solutions typically provide value for long after the initial project cost.

How Much to Invest in Custom Software

By now, lets assume you have your problem mapped out. You know how many people it affects, how much they lose, and how much money you’re losing by not addressing the issue. The next question is, can you feasibly afford the solution?

Custom software is expensive, and there’s not much you can do about it. Even if you are absolutely convinced of the value of your project, there will still be significant investment to get to the end goal. There’s no cutting corners if you expect good project outcomes, which is why its so important to know what you stand to gain. We plan to cover this topic in more detail in later articles, but for now we’ve provided a reference table for you to plan against.

Keep in mind, many factors affect these prices. Some seemingly difficult features are solvable in days, while others that appear simple can take weeks or month to accomplish.

Reference Table For Estimating Project Costs

Project Type
Price Range
Simple Marketing Website (Contractor)
A simple marketing website meant to display information, built by an independent contractor. Primarily needs to look good, function on mobile. Functionality would be limited to simple contact forms.
Simple Marketing Website (marketing firm)
A simple marketing website meant to display information, built by an experienced marketing firm. Primarily needs to look good, function on mobile. Functionality would be limited to simple contact forms. Typically would include more robust designs/mockups, more help with hosting, as well as maintenance and trouble shooting.
Proof of Concept Web/Mobile App
Web or mobile app, built by an engineering firm, designed to show that the intended functionality is possible. May not be complete, or visually appealing. May not scalable. These are typically used to attract investors.
Mid size Web App
Web or mobile app, built by an engineering firm, designed to accomplish a business function. These may absorb several business areas, allowing the company to remove multiple paid products from their workflow. This price range may also be applicable beta product launches, depending on the complexity of the product.
Enterprise Web App
These are large, overarching systems that touch multiple aspects of a business and hundreds of users. These systems have multiple integrations with other systems, multiple roles throughout the organization, and strict uptime requirements. For new products, this range would likely cover several major versions of an early stage product. If promoted properly, a new product with this much investment should typically be generating revenue and attracting large investment firms.

Follow Through with your Custom Software Project

You know your problem, and you have an idea of what its going to cost. Now what?

If you have the corporate backing or funding to move forward, the next step is to start evaluating vendors. Spend time finding a group that’s trustworthy and has a proven track record. Make sure their clients willing to vouch for their capabilities. Find out if they hide the development team, or let you interactwith the people building your solution. Finally, make sure their contracts are set up to share risk on both sides of the project, rather than pinning it all on you.

Most of all, find someone you get along with. There WILL be stress, there WILL be miscommunication. The best way to navigate that is by working with someone you trust.

Final Thoughts

Assessing whether you need custom software is a difficult task, but it doesn’t have to be guesswork. Sure, you won’t always find perfect ways to assign value to the problems you’re trying to solve. You won’t always have all the information you need to make a perfect decision. However, with a little effort, even the most complex problems can be evaluated and broken down in a way that empowers you to make better decisions.

Have fun solving big problems!