When assessing your software needs, facing up the question of whether to “build” or to “buy” is inevitable. Will a commercial off-the-shelf software suit your business needs? Or you need a custom-built solution to address these solutions?

There isn’t a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. There are equally strong and reasonable pro-build and pro-buy sentiments. It’s important you make a decision based on what you think fits the peculiar needs of your startup.

In this post, we’ll examine the case for both “building” and “buying,” and end with a recommendation.

An argument for building your software

1: A canned solution cannot meet all your needs

Maybe it’ll peak at 90%. Most will peak at 80%. But custom-built software tools are wont to leave gaps in your process. These gaps will need either the integration of another solution or grunt work to close. This extra demand on your workforce means a certain part of the business is not getting due attention. Or extra overhead.

2: They can limit your scale

The limitations of an off-the-shelf solution become more noticeable and painful as you grow. Basically, you are growing bigger than the level of support this infrastructure is able to provide. In some cases, an upgrade will fix the limitation. In some others, the solution simply won’t process any extra demand you make of it. This limit is often because the custom code does not separate presentation and business logic. This makes it difficult to scale the system to accommodate larger requests.

3: Some off-the-shelf solutions are difficult to integrate

Some solutions come with an integration process so complex that building a solution from the scratch would take lesser time, money and talent. It’s good practice here to build out a new solution.

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4: You can create a cohesive process

With custom-built software solution, you can complete all tasks within one infrastructure. This is hardly obtainable with an off-the-shelf solution. As mentioned earlier, creating an infrastructure using canned software solution will likely require extra support to function at optimum capacity. If one of these independent solutions breaks down, it will throw a wrench in the workflow.

Also, because each program module needs to be modified to accommodate unsupported business requirements, each product release or patch from the product vendor could trigger a reset – erasing all your customizations.

5: You can create a better process than the competition

By building your own process, outside of the best product on the market, you have a product that truly separates you in the marketplace. In most cases, this is more than the competition can afford or dream up. Good one for you. Before setting off on building, nevertheless, you have to be sure that this action gives you a competitive advantage. Otherwise, it’s money down the toilet.

An argument for buying an off-the-shelf software

1: Off-the-shelf solutions are generally affordable

This is the biggest draw. Most off-the-shelf solutions are affordable. A large chunk of them are free these days,  at least at a basic level. The cost of starting a business has never been lower. Building a customized solution, however, is almost always cost intensive.

Although some short-term cost differences may make building your own tool appear a shrewd alternative, in the long run, may cost you more than you thought.

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Other often overlooked expenses that come with a custom solution are replacing the technology, extending the functionality, scaling a poorly designed system and training or recruiting personnel with necessary experience to implement a solution.

For a startup on a shoestring budget, an off-the-shelf solution is simply the best way to go.

2: You can fine-tune your process

You probably think your business is the best thing since the flush toilet. You also think the same about your process. But that’s hardly ever the case. You’ll begin to see holes in your perfect process as you grow. As you open up your business and begin to engage with your market, some of your assumptions will crumble.  This will influence your internal processes.

Ergo, at the beginning, you need to limit how much you are spending on this process. Using off-the-shelf solutions allows you to experiment with little financial repercussions. You have the opportunity to fine-tune your process without first spending clumps of investors’ money on customized software that you will continue to tweak or maybe even rebuild from scratch.

3: Building your solution comes with extra maintenance and support cost

Maintenance and support add to the overall cost of a custom solution. The development team and support staff need to be on the ground to address underperformances in the solution. An off-the-shelf solution takes this extra cost off your list of expenses.


4: You are able to implement faster with off-the-shelf solution

An off-the-shelf solution is ready to run with few customizations. It means, if you are racing to an MVP, you have better chances of hitting that milestone with a customized off-the-shelf solution.

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5: Off-the-shelf is likely higher quality

Chances are the commercial off –the-shelf solution will be of higher quality when compared to one you knocked together in your garage. This is because more people have tested the solution and the product vendor would have taken the time to fix bugs. This for you means less time worrying about crashes and downtimes which may hurt your business in the early stages.


Apparently, there is a case to be made for both approaches to addressing your software needs. But the truth is, in most cases, a scraggy startup is better off with an off-the-shelf solution.

With your limited budget, you can experiment as you search for the optimal work process. Don’t delude yourself into thinking your process is one of a kind, hence, there is no solution out there for you. It probably means you need to take another look at your process. You are doing too much or too little.

As your business becomes bigger and business needs evolve, you’ll learn (from experience) what parts of your business you need to optimize. If there are no available solutions, then it’s time to don your hard hats and get building.


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