Bespoke Software Development: A Guide For Beginners

Anna Buczak
11 December 2020 · 9 min read

Growth in IT seems to be never ending. In 2021, the global software market is expected to reach a value of $508 billion.

In 2011 Marc Andreesen famously wrote that “software is eating the world”. It’s a much overused quote at this point, but it shows that 10 years have passed, and software’s appetite only keeps growing.

There are still plenty of opportunities for new technology to disrupt markets and digitise business operations. As a business owner, you most likely want to take advantage of these opportunities yourself.

Among many other decisions that you need to make, you must be wondering how to turn your idea into software. Let’s explore your options!

What is bespoke software?

The first thought that many entrepreneurs have is that you need to build custom software solutions from the ground up. “Bespoke” is just a fancier way to say “custom”.

Bespoke software is built from scratch to meet your exact business requirements. You don’t need to be a technology expert, it’s enough to be an expert at your business.

When you work with a bespoke software provider, like our team at Ulam Labs, there are several steps that will happen:

  • Discovery workshop - you lay out your idea, and together we turn it into a vision of viable software
  • Design and Prototyping - in order to avoid wasting time, we want to get the design right, and create a prototype that will meet your needs
  • Roadmapping - we prepare a detailed development plan and propose time-to-market and costs
  • Development - developers go to work, code is written, your software is created
  • Quality Assurance - your software gets thoroughly tested
  • Maintenance - after your software is tested it goes public, but it still needs to be monitored and updated to keep it running without issues, and it also might need new features as time goes by

First few steps before development usually don’t take long, it can be done in about 2 weeks. Next, it might take a few weeks, months, or even years to write the code and build working software. The more complex your project, the longer it will take.

This is how almost all companies go about building their products, either with a software provider, or with their own in-house team. A lot of managers also choose bespoke development for software used internally to manage their operations. But what are the alternatives?

Bespoke software VS off-the-shelf software

Off-the-shelf software comes in either downloadable form that you install on your machine, or as SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) that’s hosted on the provider’s server.

When it comes to building your software solutions - usually a platform to provide services or products - off-the-shelf alternatives for bespoke development used to be very limited. Finding one that properly fit business requirements was difficult, leaving bespoke software as the only viable alternative.

Nowadays, there are no-code solutions. And it’s not just suites like Wordpress or Squarespace, which you can use to build a simple website.

Tools like Bubble give you a drag & drop builder for building pretty complex web applications, which you can then sell access to. So it’s possible to build a real, viable software product without developers.

What about building internal tools? Automation suites like Zapier make it possible to create automated workflows that you used to need a developer for. If you’re running a small online business and all you want to do is to automate things like moving data from emails to spreadsheets, these solutions might be enough for you. Or if you’re part of a bigger organisation, and need to automate something that isn’t mission-critical.

These tools are “builders”. They’re off-the-shelf software for building software. If you don’t want to build, but simply need certain functionalities, you just get a premade app.

This can be anything - Gmail (you can build your own email client), your CRM, invoicing apps, resource management apps, logistics apps, and so on.

Why is off-the-shelf software cheaper?

Off-the-shelf software providers rely on scale. Their software is sold to many customers at once, so they spread the development costs across a lot of people.

They take care of building their software, hosting it, maintenance, updates and so on - which limits your ability to control and customize it. That’s also reflected in the price.

When you’re paying for off-the-shelf software, you’re paying for immediate access to a program that solves a specific problem.

When you’re paying for bespoke software, you’re paying for the time spent by developers on planning it, building it, testing it, maintaining it, updating it, and so on. In return, you get software that solves all your problems, or a product that you can sell, thus becoming an off-the-shelf software provider yourself.

Off-the-shelf doesn’t have to mean you can do it yourself

It’s important to mention that a lot of off-the-shelf solutions are so complex, that to make the best use of them you still need to work with a developer.

There are whole markets of Wordpress developers, Salesforce developers, or Magento developers, because these software suites aren’t basic drag & drop solutions.

The amount of necessary configurations, possibilities for customization, and third-party plugins make software like this hard to use without spending a lot of time learning about it.

All in all, off-the-shelf doesn’t always mean do-it-yourself.

Bespoke software costs

There are many factors that determine the final costs of developing bespoke software. The most important ones are:

  • Software Size - the size of your project directly influences the amount of man-hours necessary to build it. Small software can take up to a few months and a couple of developers, medium-sized around half a year and a team of 5, and large projects usually take more than a year and a team of 5 to 10 programmers.
  • Complexity - the more complex, the longer it’ll take to code and thoroughly test your software. This means more features, as well as more complicated business logic.
  • Integrations with other systems - older, and less-popular systems are usually harder to integrate with, which increases the final costs of the project.
  • Developer seniority - hourly rates vary depending on the developer’s level of experience.
  • Location - developers located in low-cost countries have lower rates than those located in popular technology hubs like San Francisco. Within the same country, developers in smaller towns usually have lower rates than those living in major cities.
  • Maintenance - software isn’t finished after it’s released. Technology evolves, security updates are necessary, and new features are usually added over time.

For more information, read our comprehensive guide to software development costs.

How much does a software development cost?

Bespoke software advantages and disadvantages

Something that’s an advantage for you, might be a major disadvantage for another company. This is in no way an exhaustive list, but here are a few aspects of bespoke software that you might want to consider. We covered you detailed description of bespoke software advantages and disadvantages in the following article.

Advantage: any functionality you need

Bespoke software can be built to do anything you need, and made to fit any systems that your business relies on. If you’re using an older program that you’ve built your entire workflow around, software developers can build new things around it, add new parts to it, or build a new application and integrate it with your existing software.

Disadvantage: high short-term costs

It’s no secret that software development is pricey. To build such personalised software that you’ll sell, or use to manage internal operations, you need to be prepared to spend a lot. If you need a complex application based on bleeding-edge technology, in a period of several months you might be spending several hundred thousand dollars, or even millions - and there’s really no off-the-shelf-alternative.

If you need something simpler, like a custom ecommerce store, it can be less than $20,000, which is still more than paying for an off-the-shelf alternative like Shopify. However, a Shopify store will be less stable, less scalable, and whenever there will be an issue with Shopify, there will be an issue with your store too.

Advantage: you control 100% of your software

You can switch everything up, change parts of your software and optimize it for the best possible performance. You control the data, you control the business logic, you control everything. You’re not at the mercy of a software provider whose small changes in the codebase could suddenly wreck functionalities that your business depends on.

Disadvantage: you need to think about all aspects of your software

Having 100% control of your software is a double-edged sword. You control everything, which means that you have a lot more decisions (with long-term consequences) to make - where to host your software, how to secure it, what type of features to include, the list goes on. Choosing the right software development provider will be crucial here, but they won’t take care of everything. You need to either educate yourself about the decisions that need to be made, or work with a tech partner who will be able to verify that the technological roadmap fits well with your business roadmap.

Bespoke software development for Startups, SMEs, and Enterprises

What type of company stands to benefit the most from bespoke software development?

There is no definite answer. A startup with minimal funding and a simple idea might be able to use a no-code solution like Bubble to build an MVP, and hire a development team after they receive funding.

A small or medium fintech company might have very high requirements regarding security of their client information, in which case they’d need an expert team to build a custom customer relationship management platform.

When it comes to the largest enterprises, their needs vary a lot, but they’re the least likely to use off-the-shelf solutions, except the very best and most expensive suites. They often rely on huge, custom legacy systems, which often need to be maintained, updated or even refactored. Their budgets and scale of operations make it a natural thing to build such software, because few options will meet their needs.

Bespoke software example

At Ulam Labs, our main specialty is blockchain development, which is why the founders of Lendingblock came to us to build their platform.

It’s a great example of bespoke software that has the potential to disrupt markets. Lendingblock is a platform for financial institutions, where they can securely exchange and lend any digital currency.

The platform is a bridge between the world of traditional finance and the world of blockchain-based finance. Doing this project required utmost expertise and attention to detail, in order to ensure that large quantities of digital currency can be moved securely.

This project is a good example that shows where custom software development is heading. Off-the-shelf no-code solutions are covering more and more bases - websites, non-complex applications, automated workflows - but there is an endless list of situations where the only solution is to hire a team of experts to build your software from the ground up.

Summary

Even though more and more problems have dedicated off-the-shelf solutions, bespoke software development is here to stay. Custom software development companies are still handling projects of all sizes and complexities, not just those bleeding-edge technology in multi-faceted situations and complex environments.

But even if you consider a market like ecommerce or website development, where off-the-shelf solutions seem to be covering all possible business needs, managers still choose bespoke software development more often than not. Full control and customization are important to maintain an edge over competitors.

Beyond a certain scale of operations, there’s just no other way to do it. Until you hit that threshold, off-the-shelf solutions will do fine, but as complexity and amount of customers grow, the need for custom software becomes increasingly dire.

Contact us

Related blogposts:

Bespoke software development: In-house or outsourcing?

Scrum software development: basic terms

When you should consider software development outsourcing?

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