Buy vs. Build a Software Solution

Buy it, Build it or Buying to Build

Considerations for Providing Software Solution to Your Firm

Author: Ryan Gerhardy

Selecting a software solution can feel like a “die by the sword” decision. If it is simple to use, integrates easily with other tools, and provides functionality and flexibility for current and future challenges, you’ll be loved and applauded by your colleagues and partners.

If it’s clunky, not intuitive, and makes work harder, you might not be around to know what is said about you.

A Chief Information Officer once shared he was planning to build an in-house solution for managing their law firm experience in order to ensure their information was secure and could meet the level of customization some of the lead attorneys might require. Luckily, his Chief Marketing Officer had encouraged him to engage with me to determine if “buying an existing software solution” was a better option than “building one.”

Four Ways to Purchase Software

This conversation reminded me of this great infographic from Evolved Media, about the four options to purchase or build a product, in the Evolved Media case, to implement an analytics software. This same approach applies to any software solution:

1. Custom Kitchen – A custom-built platform that allows businesses to create their solution any way they want from scratch. It’s typically the most expensive option, may take months (possibly years) to build, requires a full-time chef (or IT team to manage, operate, and support end-users), but provides complete customization and flexibility for internal IT teams.

2. Dinner in a Box – This solution has all the components you need to build your own solution, but still requires a few cooks in the kitchen who can pull together all the ingredients and do some taste tests to ensure it works properly. It’s faster than the custom kitchen but still relies heavily on internal IT teams.

3. Artisanal Brew – A more customized product, like a latte from a local coffee shop. This type of solution can be configured to meet a company’s specific needs but does not require building it from scratch. Often, support and onboarding is provided and IT time is minimal.

4. Value Meal – A one-size-fits-all solution that has little or no customization. It may not easily scale or meet your long-term needs. It’s a quick fix to get you by in the here and now.

While I love this analogy, it also bothers me as a founder of a cloud-based solution. I believe we can offer software and platform solutions (SaaS and PaaS) that look and feel like a Custom Kitchen to the end-user in the same amount of time that it takes to create and serve up an Artisanal Brew – even a crazy order like a non-fat cappuccino with three shots of espresso and nutmeg sprinkles.

In my world, Excel or Access could be considered the “Value Meal,” while an SQL database with a basic frontend view is the start of “Dinner in a Box” and as time allows, IT has plans to build out more custom fields and views to build a “Custom Kitchen” that requires a high-level of internal maintenance.

If we were to use Evolved Media’s analogy, my team at Pitchly offers an Artisanal Brew with our applications. Easy to configure and customize with little to no support from IT. But with our Platform, we offer a Custom Kitchen to IT team that cuts down the internal development and customization to meet the security requirements and permission settings.

Building vs. Buying 

So this analogy and my conversation with a CIO led me to review some of our accounts and prospects and a pattern emerged. Companies usually pursue one of these three options:

  1. Buy – The client saw the value in our platform and they subscribed to our cloud.
  2. Build their own – The firm had substantial internal development resources and decided they would custom build their own solution.
  3. Get by – The need for managing experience data had not reached an inflection point, so they would continue to get by with no solution. 

Custom Kitchen vs. Artisanal Brew or Value Meal

The decision on whether to purchase or develop the innovative applications that your firm needs to compete has changed dramatically with cloud solutions. Law firm leaders are often faced with critical decisions when it comes to technology: 

Should we….

  • Purchase an “off-the-shelf” application?
  • Should we use in-house resources to develop a custom application that meets our exact needs?
  • Or should we do nothing and risk being inefficient with our billable time?

Often, it feels as if most software solutions fall in the Value Meal category. Firms and attorneys may feel there is no solution that is customizable to meet the unique needs of their teams. However, there are Artisanal Brew software solutions whose sole focus is to listen and learn from customers to create a solution that is easily customized yet still user-friendly. This is what Pitchly offers. 

In-House Solutions Require Bandwidth

The developed in-house side would point to the existing investment in staff talent. For sure, no one understands the pressing needs more than the people who work within an organization every day. If in-house development resources have the bandwidth, why not assign them the important task of creating a new platform or application?

Developer Talent and Time

The buy side will point to the firm focusing on what it does best. Even if developer talent exists within the firm, odds are the resources are, limited, distracted by day-to-day projects, and may only have some of the knowledge required to complete the project. For example, creating an experience management platform requires subject matter expertise, programmers, quality assurance, implementation specialists, professional services engineers, and a roadmap of future functionality requests.

Paradigm Shift in Software Solutions

What is instructive about my recent experience, is that the build versus buy versus “just get by decision” has changed from a pure A, B or C selection. There are two significant paradigm shifts in software development, which have altered the equation:

1. Cloud-based services provide a variety of options

The acceleration and acceptance of cloud-based services have allowed Artisanal Brews in the market for core platform development. I would also say IT teams can find Custom Kitchens to purchase, as we offer a PaaS to eliminate what takes internal IT teams months or years to develop, build, and maintain. 

Firms now have the ability to subscribe to a service rather than make an “all-in” commitment to a platform. We are all familiar with protracted and costly professional services engagements associated with ERP, CRM, and other core enterprise solutions. Firm executives often find themselves in a position similar to families that undertake a major house remodel: it cost more and took much longer than expected, while several unforeseen obstacles changed the project scope.

Upside: The cloud services model requires the developer to continually meet the changing needs of the client, or they are free to move on.

2. Cloud platforms offer web service APIs

Just as equally as important, cloud services platforms offer web service APIs that allow the client, vendor or even a third-party integrator to easily customize the solution to meet the exact needs of the firm, without requiring proprietary knowledge of the vendor. Again, no more Value Meals.

Upside: This flexibility provides the client with the best of both worlds: the immediacy and cost-effectiveness of commercial software with customization of a home-grown solution.

Relating these two qualities to the encounter I had with the CIO, it points to the benefits of a hybrid build/buy decision. This client saw that our platform could meet many of its knowledge management needs, in addition to allowing the team to custom design tombstones for proposals. The cloud platform could replace the existing relational database and office productivity applications that were serving as a piecemeal solution.

But the compelling factor was our willingness to adapt our product to accommodate the workflow and data management needs for each of the firm’s practices. No doubt that given time, the firm could develop a working program in-house to address these needs, but the ability to leverage our platform:

  • Cut months of in-house development and operational costs
  • Reduced complexity for delivery and support (now they just call Pitchly)
  • Saved hundreds of thousands of dollars annually

As you consider your own build versus buy decision, consider the benefits of a hybrid approach where you work with a vendor to identify your priorities, assess product feature development and staff skill sets, and aligning of firm and vendor goals and incentives. With the right partnership in both platform functionality and allied business models, you may find that “buying to build” may produce the winning combination.