These days, you can find off-the-shelf Web applications for just about any function your business requires. Have an event coming up and need a quick page? EventBrite should do the trick. Need a basic “contact us” form for your Web site? Think Wufoo. Heck, with a product like Squarespace, you can even build an entire Web site on your own, if you’re so inclined.
For general needs, many of these products (usually referred to as SaaS or Software-As-A-Service) do the job just fine. But not always. In my experience, there are three specific instances where it pays to build it yourself. In each case, I’ve found that going the DIY route resulted in more efficiency, product satisfaction and yes, even cost savings:
1. The Existing Products are Too Complex or Expensive for Your Needs.
If your organization performs a basic, rote online process – say, gathering customer sign-up information, processing application submittals, or storing data for future reference, there are multiple options available (think any off-the-shelf Customer Relationship Management tool) to capture and use that information. But what if you simply don’t need that much functionality? Many CRM-type products, such as Salesforce, are great but they can also be bloated with features, expensive, and require a consultant to help you use the software properly.
We discovered this when we built a new Web site for the Hope Chest Scholarship Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships and leadership development training to minority students.
As a provider of financial assistance, Hope Chest requires a Web-based process for students to submit an application, which is then reviewed by the Hope Chest scholarship committee. The review entails several steps, each of which need to be communicated to the applicant via the client’s site.
Initially, we looked for a third-party product to handle this entire process, and we found a great one. Too great, it turned out. It offered feature on top of feature and would have required a representative to teach the client how to use it. To top it off, a yearly subscription was $7,000 – about the same amount that Hope Chest provides in a typical scholarship award.
The interface for the application processing tool we built for the Hope Chest Foundation
We advised the client that they would be better off if we created this tool for them. And, our prescription fit the bill. Since we already had a thorough understanding of the requirements, mapping out the process was easy. Moreover, we could limit functionality to only those components the client needed. Given this simplicity and, since we were building it right within the client’s existing content management system, we were able to charge less than the amount the client would have paid for their SaaS product – and ours would be a one-time fee. Moreover, since the client would now own the tool, cost would amortize over time.
2. You Have a Niche Requirement For Which No Product Exists
As I mentioned above, there’s a Web tool for everything. Unless there’s not. As businesses grow, some will confront a situation where they require Web functionality for which no product exists. In such cases, the market may be so small that software developers simply don’t see money in creating a SaaS solution.
This was our experience with SpreadMusicNow (SMN), a Connecticut-based organization that funds music education programs across the country. SMN fulfills its grants, in part, through the donations it receives via social media, email solicitations, direct/Web site contributions and multiple crowdfunding pages. Accordingly, they required a donor management tool to help them track donation sources, and organize data to build a case in approaching donors.
There are hundreds of off-the-shelf CRM products available to non-profits that can handle these tasks. However, SpreadMusicNow, isn’t a 501(c)3 non-profit, but rather, a donor-advised fund. As such, the client couldn’t take advantage of non-profit pricing, which put the cost of these tools out of reach. To us, this began to feel like a niche development opportunity, especially when we considered that most of these products put limits on how much original design we could provide.
While we spent nearly a year looking for a third-party donor management tool that could meet the client’s specific needs, SMN was growing – meaning more donations were coming in -- and we were starting to lose track. Now, we had a strong case to pitch the client on building them a custom tool. We did indeed end up building, and as in the case of Hope Chest Scholarship Foundation, we were able to refine the product to the client’s exact needs as well as circumvent the limitations of existing third-party tools.
3. You Simply Want Control
One of the benefits of building your own Web tool is that, well, you’ll own it. You can tweak it as you like, design the look and feel as you like, and integrate it as tightly as you need to into your existing Web site, app, or platform.
When you use a third-party provider, you are simply renting their product. Not such a bad thing, but you will indeed be tied to their design, code, policies, and inevitable price increases that come with it.
The parent directory we built for Resurrection Episcopal Day School, NYC
For Resurrection Episcopal Day School in New York City, we built a private school directory that parents and administrators could access via Web site login. We could have integrated a plug-and-play application that may have performed the same functions, but for a small, tightly-knit school, building custom was the way to go – especially given the sensitive nature of the content involved.
To Build Or Rent?
Admittedly, I’m biased when it comes to making custom Web applications. Not only can they elegantly solve a specific business function, but they’re incredibly fun to build. As much as we love creating classic marketing Web sites, a Web app is more like a tool, and tools are just, well, cool.
That being said, I would recommend weighing your Web application requirements against what I’ve discussed above. If your needs meet one or more of these criteria, it may be time to call in the hired guns.