Custom apps shrouded in myth

Custom apps can deliver competitive advantage to businesses and, unlike it is believed, they are well within reach of any small-to-medium-sized companies.

When considering apps to help you run your business, there are two ends of the spectrum – off-the-shelf and custom-built. Each has its pros and cons and you need to weigh them up carefully before you make a decision on which is most appropriate.

Off-the-shelf apps are prebuilt and packaged, and are often more general in their features and application, to appeal to a larger customer base. This means that they include many features that your business is unlikely to ever use.

When it comes missing features, you may need to submit a feature request and wait, or pay a substantial amount for customisation or add-on modules. On the positive side, you pay a relatively low up-front cost to use the app and benefit from a larger company providing support and upgrades.

Custom apps are built to the exact specifications of one customer. They are built to fit the processes so you don’t have to change your processes to fit the system. As your business grows and changes, the custom app can be updated to fit changing needs and processes – you can start simple and gradually add more features over time.

There are three major myths about custom development which deter business owners from developing their own apps. Custom apps can be great tools to help you meet specific business goals and these myths need to be dispelled to for their true potential to be appreciated.

Here are the myths:

1. Off-the-shelf apps are available to run any business

There are off-the-shelf apps are available for any type of business. If you only need general functionality – customer relationship management (CRM), accounting or inventory control – and you can find an off-the-shelf app that does exactly what you want, in the way you want to do it, it’s a very cost effective solution.

An off-the-shelf app will usually provide standardised processes, however, and your business will be most successful when you differentiate your products and services from your competitors. That usually means developing a custom app that delivers a competitive edge.

While off-the-shelf apps are available for all the common business processes, it is difficult to find an app that fits all your business needs – and if you do, you’ll invariably end up with disparate systems that don’t talk to each other, creating data silos. By creating a custom app, you can develop a single system that handles all aspects of your business.

2. Only the largest companies can afford to develop custom apps

Ironically, often only the largest companies can afford off-the-shelf apps – many come with a raft of hidden costs such as installation hardware, testing, employee training, maintenance and paying for features that aren’t used.

Although custom apps can be expensive you can usually start small, developing to exact specifications within a specified budget and timeframe. If you start with simple processes that deliver quickly, you can get some early wins that help support further development.

Focus initially on the most urgent areas of improvement and those that result in the greatest savings. Phase in further customisation over time, it may take a few years to develop a large custom app that controls most aspects of your business, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

3. Custom apps take a long time to build, deploy, and pay for themselves

Starting small with custom app development means faster delivery and return on investment (ROI). This approach means you only wait for the development of, and pay for, the features your business urgently requires.

Combining off-the-shelf and custom apps can save time – don’t bother waiting for a custom app for accounting, for example, as it involves standard processes for which ready-made apps are available. Concentrate on customising your unique business processes that give you a competitive edge and a better ROI.

In these circumstances just make sure your custom app can feed data into the accounting system – most systems can be connected using an application-planning interface (API).

Custom app development is well within reach of any small-to-medium-sized business, and it provides great benefits a relatively modest investment. Depending on your needs it can be an affordable alternative or add-on to off-the-shelf apps. And it will be a valuable asset that incorporates your business’s intellectual property.

David Head, Consulting Engineer for Asia Pacific, FileMaker Inc. – an Apple subsidiary

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