Do You Need Custom Software?

We frequently get calls from potential customers that begin something like this:

I’ve been in my industry for years, and I know the landscape well. I want to do X, but I haven’t found any software that does what I want, exactly how I want to do it. Can you all help?

The direct answer to the question is almost always yes, but we typically ask people to consider another question first…

Do you really need custom software to achieve your goals?

If you do, we’re happy to help, and we’d love to have an initial conversation to determine if we’re a good fit for you.
But it’s not a given that you actually do need custom software.
Custom software can cost as much as a house. Before you make that kind of financial commitment, it pays (sometimes literally) to do your due diligence.

If you don’t have experience in the custom software world, it can seem like black magic. The terminology is foreign, the costs are based on factors you probably aren’t familiar with, and many of the issues involved might be things you haven’t thought about before.

We can, however, give you some things to consider based on common themes we’ve seen with customers in the past. Think of it as a questionnaire to determine if custom software should be on the table.

Question 1: Why do you want the software to begin with?

There’s at least one pain point you want to address or you wouldn’t be considering software at all. What’s the pain?
Is it wasted time? Added cost? Missed revenue? Not achieving your vision? This is the value your software will add to your business, so do your best to qualify and quantify it.

We help customers do this as part of our Conceptualize and Explore phases (and we’re happy to do it), but thinking about this ahead of time can help you know whether custom software is the right road for you or not.

And don’t forget that the pain might be a broader opportunity than you were considering. If there appears to be no software for your industry that does what you want, is that true for others? Could you make money on that with a custom software offering you sell? That’s a bigger step, obviously, but it’s worth some thought.

Question 2: Can something “off the shelf” cut it?

If you strip down what you want to achieve to only the “must-have” features, is there anything on the market that will get you where you want to go? This minimalist thinking is something we walk customers through in our Conceptualize and Explore phases, so it’s worth considering it before you decide custom software is a strategic enabler for you.

If you can find something that might do the job, consider buying it, because custom software will very likely cost you more.

If not, is there a set of tools that’ll give you what you want if you cobble them together with a tool like Zapier, which can link tools in creative ways? If so, consider doing that, because again, custom software will very likely cost you more.

If not…

Question 3: What are your bare minimum required features?

This is what you need to create in order to get some subset of real users as soon as possible so you can validate whether you’re right or not.

What you’re trying to create is what’s called a minimum viable product (MVP). That’s the barely sufficient software that will create business value for you. Every word is important:

What is the absolute smallest set of features (minimum) which will give you working software (product) that adds measurable value to your business (viable)?

That’s the goal. Don’t add more than you need for your MVP. Those additional things can come later. First things first.

Once you know your MVP…

Question 4: Do you really have the budget and timeline for your MVP?

This one is a little uncomfortable, but it’s vital to answer.

If you don’t have a budget and timeline that gives you a realistic shot at partnering with us — or any competent development team — to create the software you need, even for your MVP, let’s not try to force something. We’d rather find that out before we even begin, and give you good counsel either way.

How much does your budget need to be? It depends on what you want in your MVP and beyond. Realistically, if you have at least somewhere between $50,000 and $250,000 it’s worth talking to us to figure out if that’s enough. Anything less than that usually isn’t. In fact, less than that probably won’t get you custom software anywhere. It may be enough to leverage a generic platform (e.g. WordPress) for some limited set of functionality, but that’s not what we mean when we are talking about custom software.

We’ve worked with people in the past who didn’t have a realistic idea of what “the next Facebook” can cost to create, or if it’s realistic to create at all. Save yourself that pain.

And remember, your MVP is the first step. You’ll almost certainly want more. So…

Question 5: Do you have the budget for your “full” system?

Assuming your MVP budget and timeline are realistic, how much is the rest of what you want likely to cost?

We try to get a preliminary idea of this in your Conceptualize phase, and we refine it in your Explore phase. It’s different for each app. That said, it’s certainly more money than your MVP, and it might be more money than you have or are willing to spend.

Let’s say we estimate together that your MVP will cost roughly $200,000. And let’s say you know you’ll want a value increment beyond that, probably 3–6 months after your MVP goes live, and that would cost another $100,000. Do you have the total $300,000 to spend?

If you do, that’s great, and we would encourage you to get started. If you don’t, do you have a business plan for how to secure the additional investment necessary to fund the rest of what you want to achieve?

We worked with an entrepreneur who didn’t have all he needed to get started, so we counseled him to wait on the MVP until he had secured investors. He went out and found them, then we built him a great system that continues to help his business succeed.

Or maybe you can invest a smaller amount initially to get either a very minimal MVP as a proof of concept, or at least a “walking skeleton” of one (an incomplete implementation which explores the major system components and their linkages), and use that to secure the funding you need to get to the next level.

Again, we’re not looking to take your money. We’re more interested in helping you be successful.


Question 6: How much will support cost?

It’s amazing how many people can relate to support costs for almost everything else in life, but they forget about it when it comes to custom software.

Contrary to popular belief, there simply is no such thing as bug-free software. You can only be assured of the things you’ve tested for in the environments you expected, but users will eventually do something you didn’t anticipate. And there’s no reason to think your initial software will be perfect for your business forever.

You’ll need to fix things and grow things to preserve the value your custom software adds to your business. That means ongoing support.

We sign support contracts with most of our customers, and we like to think our approach is reasonable, but it isn’t free. Would you buy a car and not expect to service it to keep it in good running order? Not if you’re smart, so assume you’ll need to do the equivalent for the software that enables your business vision.

Our rule of thumb for clients is to estimate you’ll spend 20% of your initial development cost for support in the first year after the software goes live. If you do that, you won’t be far wrong. Why? Because that’s what we’ve seen to be true in many real-world systems.

So, you think you need custom software?

If you have a good idea of what you want to achieve with your software, you have a realistic budget that will let you create what you need, you can’t find something off the shelf to get there, and you realize your software will need support to be an asset to your business, then custom software might be a good fit for you.

The next step is to hire a superior software development partner, with a solid track record, to help you create the software that will pay you back for years.