Sunday, 4 December 2016

Web Based Software: Custom v Off The Shelf


We use and create lots of web based software solutions. Sometimes it's something as simple as our lead generation calculator, sometimes it's a lot more complex. We also work with our clients to develop web-based applications to help them achieve a business goal such as giving their customers access to data. If you're not sure what a web application is, think of your on-line banking, that's a web app. Right now we've got several web applications in development.

There are usually two choices when it comes to software development, custom or off the shelf, and this short article considers the merits and costs of each.

The Next Facebook

So you've had a great idea, maybe the next facebook, and you need to develop it or have it developed. Before you approach an agency with a "Hey guys, I need something like facebook, how much will that cost?" stop and consider this. Sites like facebook have cost squillions to build but they often started out small and simple, sometimes using off-the-shelf software. My first apps were built with very little knowledge, a few lines of ASP and an Access Database (fellow geeks will now be smiling), trust me, it's how lots of us started.

It's Complicated

Having said that, just like the film of the same title, web application development isn't easy, it's complicated. In fact, software development is downright complex, often plagued by overspend, late delivery and in some cases abject failure, it's certainly not for the faint hearted.

There are some exceptions. For example, I hacked this keyword research tool together in an afternoon. It's super simple but very useful and used by people all over the world every day. However, mostly, software development is complex.

Software Development - The Two Approaches

When considering a development there are generally two options.

  1. Build it from scratch.
  2. Mash it up from stuff that's already available.

Here's a quick overview of the merits if each.

The Mash-Up Approach

We love mash-ups. Grabbing software that pretty much does what you want and extending it to do what you need. One of our very successful side projects Share My Office does that, it's become the go-to website app for people looking for coworking space in London. It's created with off the shelf software and some ingenuity, perhaps we got lucky. Lucky or not it's turned into a "thing" and businesses all over the world use it to advertise spare desks and office space to people looking for coworking opportunities. It even generates an income.


It's a great example of what can be achieved using ready-made software. It's proof that it's often not the software that's valuable, but the idea.

Build It From Scratch

The other option, which we will eventually pursue when we secure first round funding for Share My Office, was to write the software we needed from scratch. This would have allowed us to create exactly what we needed with no compromises and given us a platform we could call our own. But it would have come at a significantly higher cost.

Another of our projects falls into this category. Due to its complexity, and the very specific problem it solves, a ready-made system wasn't an option. We did experiment with potential solutions, but it just didn't work as we needed. To date, this project has swallowed up around 2000 hours of development work and at UK development agency rates would cost between £150k and £200k. Quite a different proposition to Share My Office.

It's Your Call

So there it is. If you've had a great idea for a web-based service you can either learn to code, or hire a coder, and create something from scratch or look into using a ready-made software solution like we did with our office sharing coworking app Share My Office. The first is often expensive and time-consuming, the second will get your great idea to market quicker and cheaper. The first means you own the IP and that might be important, the second leaves you exposed to being copied if you don't grab market share quickly.

More in this category: Web Development, Lead Generation

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