When it comes to web technology, there are solutions for just about everything. Do you need CRM, online fundraising, discussion forums, social networks, or job listings? You can likely find a SaaS (Software as a Service) solution to sign up for, a license to purchase, or open source solution to download all that offer complete working solutions to use "out of the box" to address your need.
Sometimes you might feel a tug in your gut or hear an inspiring idea shared by a colleague that makes you consider whether you should build your own technology. It's a tempting feeling to build something tailored to you, fully customized, and by your design.
How do you know when to use what someone else has built to do the job you need or whether it may be time to build something of your own?
Getting to an answer is a little like a choose your own adventure story, you need to consider some key questions and spend a little time learning and evaluating along the way.
Well that was a direct response to the question, right? It's like the first rule of technology club. Don't roll your own when you don't have to. Start with something "off the shelf" when possible and in many cases try more than one solution over time if the first does not do the job.
Let's take something simple, like an online survey tool as an example. If this is your organization's first online survey, try Wufoo, Get Feedback, Typeform, or some other of the hundreds of offerings that are out there. Use your selected solution 1, 2, 3, 5 times and take some notes as you go. What do you like? What don't you like? If the "don't likes" become roadblocks or significant pain points from you getting the job done, then try another "off the shelf" solution and similarly use a few times and take notes.
I would recommend going with a solution or product that includes support. SaaS solutions are a fantastic first option to try. They often have low monthly fees if not free trials, offer support, and generally allow you to cancel their service at any time.
Also, always choose a tool that has an API. Even if you don't know what that means or how it could serve you, this should not be overlooked.
-Seth Giammanco, MOD-Lab
If the solution you are using is doing the job well, congrats and keep using it. If not, keep reading.
Things get more complicated from this point forward. Let's say you heeded my advice and used some SaaS offerings and felt that they were not doing the job you need done or in a way this was right for you.
There are so many reasons why an "off the shelf" solution may fail you. These may include but are certainly not limited to the following:
You've learned a lot using other tools. All those notes you have gathered about likes and dislikes are incredibly valuable. You are now experienced.
Here's the next critical question that will guide any further follow-up questions and next steps.
Answer this on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being essential and directly in line with mission execution and 1 being not mission related at all.
I'd consider the following questions to guide your next steps.
You should consider the questions above as well as the question below. Also, building your own solution may be worth some consideration.
You should certainly assess all the questions above. Going custom is an investment requiring not only the initial cost to build but also a continuing budget for upkeep and evolution.
If after notable effort assessing other solutions and if there is notable connection to your mission, then it may indeed be a good time to explore building your own solution, your own product.
It's at that time you rally your team both internal and external to explore this possibility.
Building your own solution is a risky undertaking. Having some strong experience and knowledge from existing solutions can help mitigate some risk in particular as you can more specifically articulate what you need in a custom solution.
You can build your own knowledge base around your need by piggybacking on that of others by using their solutions at minimal cost and time. This provides you an opportunity to test your ideas and evaluate your results more efficiently.
If you are starting a community maybe a Facebook or LinkedIn group is a good place to start. If you are running a team fundraiser you might consider one of the many solutions like Causevox or Razoo for your first effort.
If your journey has left you with unsolvable pain points from other solutions and your needs are mission critical or notably mission impacting then you can take all you have learned and apply it to some product planning and explore the possibility of creating your own custom solution with greater confidence.
Principal, Strategy and Technology