Off-the-Shelf Solution vs. Custom Solution

February 23, 2017
Written By John Lai

A start-up business that requires technology as part of its value proposition often needs to create a minimum viable product (MVP) to evaluate their business model assumptions. They may also demonstrate the MVP to potential investors. When planning the development of an MVP, the founder(s) will realize they have two options they can choose from: an off-the-shelf solution or a custom solution. I'll explain the advantages and disadvantages of both. I'll also explain our favourite way of achieving an MVP with each option.

Off-The-Shelf Solution

An off-the-shelf solution, or 3rd party solution, is a finished product that you can acquire from another company. Some solutions are open source, which means you can obtain and use for free (conditions may apply). Many solutions will also offer options for customization.

Advantage

  • Critical features you need will likely exist
  • Relatively fast to set up - you can reach the market faster and focus on the business instead of the technology
  • Customer support, technical support and engineering support from company that created the solution

Disadvantage

  • May not meet all your requirements
  • May not provide precise user experience that customer expects
  • Limited customization and extensibility – which is a significant bottle neck if technology is your core business
  • Competitors can copy your technical approach

When building an MVP from an off-the-shelf solution, we strongly recommend that customizations be limited to:

  • color/theme changes
  • text/image/content changes
  • application specific configurations
  • adding plugins

We argue against developing plugins for off-the-shelf solution unless it is an extremely popular platform (think household name) backed by a strong community, or there is guaranteed engineering support from the company that created the solution. We discourage modifying the core framework, which is generally a sign of forcing a platform to be something that it is not.

Custom Solution

A custom solution is a solution that will be tailor made by developers. The founder, developers, and project managers need to work together throughout every phase of the software development life cycle to build the MVP.

Advantage

  • More customized product for improved user experience (especially important in B2C market)
  • Developers can plan in-advance for scalability and extensibility

Disadvantage

  • More costly to develop
  • More costly to maintain and support
  • Will take at least 3 times longer than an off-the-shelf solution

If you are considering a custom solution, consider starting with an off-the-shelf solution as a litmus test for your business. A custom solution may make sense if your alpha users criticize the off-the-shelf solution for poor user experience.

If you decide on a custom solution, it is extremely important that you have experienced professionals guide you through the software development life cycle.