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Custom Development vs Off-the-Shelf Software

In the early days of the Internet, you had to build almost everything from scratch. Nowadays there are dozens of applications already developed that cater to many different needs. For example, this post is written using WordPress, a popular content management system. When I first began doing web design in the early 2000’s, I created my own content management system for my clients. It was simple, but it did the job, and I could customize it for my clients. Ten years later, I would not even consider doing that, because WordPress is so well-developed and supported that I could never keep up and I would be doing my clients a disservice.

There are trade-offs to any decision, of course.

Pros and Cons of Off-the-Shelf Software

I am assuming here that you are using high-quality software. Make sure to research the software thoroughly to make sure they are present.


  • Software is built by a team of developers, making it robust
  • Tested by many users
  • Supported by the developers and community
  • An ecosystem of plugins and themes makes it customizable
  • Code is updated, maintained, and developed by others
  • Cost is low compared to custom code


  • Your ability to customize the application is limited
  • You  may have to pay a developer to help mesh all the plugins together to get the result you want
  • You need to keep your site updated as new code is released so it stays secure
  • You are subject to the designer/developer making choices about what features to develop

Pros and Cons of Developing Custom Code


  • Develop software that does exactly what you want it to, meeting  your exact needs and giving your clients the exact experience you want to give them.
  • You decide what features you want and have complete control.
  • You do not have to keep up with anyone else’s development schedule.


  • Expensive
  • Requires a lot of time to develop specifications and figure out what you want
  • Requires ongoing maintenance by a developer

How to Decide

I recommend always going with high-quality off-the-shelf software IF it does not compromise the core value you offer your customers or the heart of how your business functions.

For example, no matter how annoying you (and I) find Quickbooks and other accounting software, it is not likely you are going to hire a developer to make you your own accounting software. The benefits would hardly ever outweigh the costs…unless you are, for example, an accounting firm. Then it just might–especially if the way you handle your accounts is intimately tied to your software and this is how you differentiate yourself from your competition.

So, if the software itself delivers the value of your business, you may want some or all of it to be custom. If it doesn’t, find the best software you can that does the job well enough, and focus your time and energy on delivering your core value.

Questions? Leave them in the comments.

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