Custom vs. Off the Shelf Software: Which is Right for You?

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Organizations are becoming increasingly dependent on digital tools in their everyday operations. Software applications can simplify workflows, enhance user experience, create new streams of revenue, and so much more, which is why most businesses have employed them in some capacity since there’s been a proliferation of off the shelf solutions.

However, just because a business has bought a software license doesn’t automatically make it a perfect fit for the organization’s needs. In fact, companies often invest in off the shelf solutions that are tailored for a broad customer base for a few key features to solve a specific problem. On the other hand, organizations sometimes invest significant resources unnecessarily in a custom piece of software where an off the shelf solution would have worked just as well.

So, how can you know if you need an off the shelf solution or a custom piece of software? Here are a few things to consider:

How Tailored an Approach is Necessary

Every business has a unique story, but in most cases, they consist of largely the same business functions. In cases like these where an organization relies on straightforward combinations of accounting, administration, marketing, sales, and other core business functions, there is often an off the shelf software solution that can meet the needs of the business. Off the shelf software is usually designed for a broad array of scenarios, which means it can serve the typical needs of an organization that relies on typical processes.

However, if an organization has a specific combination of operations that are unique, or operating in an underserved segment of your industry, then an off the shelf solution may not be a good option, because it probably won’t fulfill the core functions you’re looking for it to do. In cases like these, there may be more value in having a custom solution that conforms to your needs rather than reworking your processes to align with industry standards.

For example, a Hammer Dev client in the nuclear power industry was looking for a piece of software that could coordinate and triage highly specialized resources that were required to service components of a nuclear power plant. On the face of it, the organization could have easily invested in a project management software and time management tool to achieve that balance, but they would have had to manage the process with the help of a staff member, and they were looking for a way to do so without dedicating manned resources to the task. For that reason, they employed Hammer Dev to develop and deploy a scheduling engine that could balance and prioritize the delivery dates, unique lab set-ups, and a diverse team of engineers to meet their deadlines.

How Much Control You Want Over the Software

Off the shelf solutions are by definition developed by someone else who has control over the source code, additional product features, customizability, and security. Depending on the situation, this could be desirable, because it means your business won’t need to devote resources to managing regular updates and security monitoring to ensure your software is running as it should. Additionally, you will benefit from the ongoing investment put into the platform, which if the executed effectively will be a result of the demands of the broader user community.

However, custom software has benefits that off the shelf applications don’t, and one of the biggest is that you can easily change your software to meet your business’s evolving needs. With custom applications, the business owns every aspect of the solution, which means they can tailor to meet changes necessitated by organizational growth or changing market conditions.

In some cases, businesses that invest in custom applications can even develop a new stream of revenue if their application meets a previously unmet need within the marketplace. However, it’s only possible to productize a solution when you invest in a custom piece of software rather than an off the shelf solution.

What Kind of User Interface/Experience (UI/UX) You Want to Create

Regardless of whether you’re looking to apply your custom piece of software internally or externally, the user experience and interface is an important consideration because it impacts how consistently you can communicate your brand and place limits on the adoption rate of the solution.

As noted previously, off the shelf software often comes with limitations on how much can be customized, which includes branding and tailoring to an organization’s employees. If the solution is intended to be client-facing, then you can create a poor impression of your company’s ability to solve its customer’s problems, reducing the chances of a potential conversion or future purchase. However, what’s perhaps more important is that poor UI/UX in an off the shelf application can lead to poorer overall adoption of the solution, resulting in resources being wasted on a perceived investment.

By contrast, custom software can be endlessly customized to fit the needs of the end users. This flexibility means that you can develop a solution that works better than any other on the market while also allowing you to include consistently branded material. With both of these possibilities, you’ll ensure your business’s investment provides value to your organization without dissuading potential customers or depressing adoption rates.

Do You Want to Pay Now, or Later?

Debates around custom software vs. off the shelf solutions can often come back to the issue of price tag, and with good reason. Custom software tends to have higher upfront costs than off the shelf options because you’re shouldering the bill for its development rather than an industry, which is why many organizations prefer to cobble together solutions from off the shelf programs.

However, unless your organization is facing an off the shelf problem, you’ll end up paying more if you opt for off the shelf solutions over time. The reason for this is that, in buying off the shelf solutions, you’re often paying for features you don’t need or plan to use, which makes the value of the solution less than its overall sticker price. Additionally, the fact that you are buying an off the shelf solution for a specific job means you’ll be layering other off-the shelf solutions over it to fulfill other tasks your organization still needs to solve for. Then, due to the multiple layers you’ve had to invest in housing data separately, you’ll need to invest in an integration solution that can require even more resources to do effectively.

Aside from the different investments you’d have to make to cobble together off the shelf solutions for your organization, you’ll also be incurring costs in lost productivity. These “shadow costs” aren’t calculated in the bottom line immediately but appear in the amount of productivity that’s lost in inefficient processes, wasted time transitioning between solutions, and other seemingly significant tasks that can lead to an organization’s death by a thousand papercuts.

Custom software’s high upfront costs are often defrayed over its lifetime as it doesn’t require cobbling together solutions and often increases adoption by end users. These two factors means lower shadow costs and reduced spending to get your organization’s needs met.

The Kind of Security You’re Looking For

On a long enough time scale, any software can be breached, but that doesn’t mean you should approach cybersecurity as if there’s no point; it just means changing your approach to what how you’re trying to stay safe.

Off the shelf solutions are often well known and widely adopted, which makes them targets for hackers. After all, cyber criminals aren’t looking to do one-off attacks, but find ways of using as much information as they can about as many companies as they can to extract value from their targets, so they often attack systems that can be applied across an industry. Additionally, because adoption of off the shelf solutions could be spotty, you can increase the chances of shadow IT compromising your company’s systems (you can find out more about shadow IT here). However, off the shelf solutions often come from companies that recognize this risk and mitigate it by dedicating entire teams to ensuring the software is protected and deploying patches when a vulnerability is identified.

Relying on an outsourced security team is one approach to ensuring your tech stack is secure, but it may not be worth the investments we discussed earlier. If that’s the case, then you could benefit from a custom application, because it provides protection through obscurity. While it may not be a perfect cover, your software was designed for a much smaller audience than most off the shelf solutions, which means your organization’s risk of a cybersecurity threat will be reduced.


Custom vs. off the shelf software is a discussion that’s often had as if both can be applied equally across all situations. However, the reality is that organizations should evaluate what they are looking to achieve and whether the problems they face have been met by someone else in a way that makes sense for them. There are benefits to both custom and off the shelf solutions, but each also comes with tradeoffs that can be hard to weigh in the moment.

If you’re interested in getting help with weighing the options, Hammer Dev has a team with over 45 years of experience helping clients determine which software solutions are right for them. Visit our Contact Us page to set up a time to talk.