The Perils of Building from Scratch

Illustration for the Perils of Starting from Scratch

Building from scratch. Throughout our experience with digital transformation consulting, we have repeatedly been asked the same question. It’s often expressed by companies that are at the beginning of their journey:  What if we build it from scratch?  

Developing a new software, CMS, or enterprise platform that solves a specific need from the business is a fairly standard request. As a digital consulting firm, we have been part of many projects where the only appropriate solution is building from scratch, with clean code and a unique approach.  

However, a better question to ask is how convenient it is for your business. “Having something of your own” in terms of digital assets is a seductive idea for many, but it can be highly demanding in time, money, and/or workforce resources. Also, it prioritizes the nature of the digital product itself, rather than the problems it should solve, or even the business itself. 

Chasing a custom-built solution assumes you’re the first company with a unique problem, and while that’s true in some ways the broader answer is that it is highly likely that technology that can be customized to your specific use-case has already been developed. Once you cross that hurdle, you’ll find out that digital transformation is a lot closer than you thought. 

Let’s review the reasons behind this line of thought, some common misconceptions, and other considerations for developing a new software, platform or digital product.  

Building from scratch: How did we end up here

With the risk of generalizing, we could say that companies that are in the journey of building from scratch a software, platform or portal come from two very different backgrounds. The first one: they have not previously acquired software for their business processes and have chosen to create it themselves. It’s their first experience, which might lead to the misconception that creating something new is the only way to go.

The second one is trickier: they had a bad experience with a supplier or provider in the past. As far as we have seen, the product or software suite by itself is rarely the issue. Lack of customization, misunderstanding of the business model, inadequate product-model fit, a superficial or nonexistent process of change management, and learning curve without proper training are some of the factors that might move a digital project towards development hell. At the very least, these factors can keep a project from reaching its full potential or even solving the problems for which it was envisioned.  

It’s hard to distinguish the nature of the product from the implementation of the product itself, especially when the technical part is managed by a third party. However, in our experience, we have seen clients from a wide range of industries fall in love with the same software they deemed as useless after the planning, design, and implementation stages are executed properly.  

Three of the most important factors that companies and organizations want from their digital projects are control, security, and a perfect fit with their business needs. But can custom-built software meet these expectations?  

From zero to the moon: Some misconceptions before you start building from scratch

Many companies that are tempted to follow the approach of “building from scratch” their own platform often proceed despite three big misconceptions. 

  • Believing their needs are unique
  • Believing that complex is better
  • Believing that building something new can be changed or managed with agility    

First assumption: believing that their business needs are completely unique. Many companies have inadvertently made their platforms and solutions more complicated and redundant by duplicating tasks, useless processes, and unnecessary features. However, none of these characteristics add value to their products or services. Rather than being unique, this falls into the inefficient category — they impose an obstacle for growth. It is crucial to understand what is relevant for your digital business model, and whether what you normally do is just entropy or tradition.

A second misconception is the belief that creating something complex will distinguish your business — making it difficult for others to have your “secret digital business recipe.” This is what we call “security through obscurity.” Instead of providing accessibility and empowering audiences, the solution itself becomes a problem. Time and resources are invested in a complex manner that is more a statement than a driver of quality or efficiency for your business. With such an approach, scalability will probably be affected in the short term, and will also require a lot of work hours from your IT team. In fact, the spirit of the digital world seems to work the opposite: universal products that work everywhere, anytime, and are frequently tested. Think of open-source platforms like Liferay or, on a smaller scale, WordPress — the more people that know how it works, the more people that can enhance it.

The last misconception is believing that building a product will allow you to change or fix things as much and as quickly as you want. The reality is consistently the opposite.

The truth is, even when your IT team is highly skilled and has a clear vision for documentation and implementation that follows the solution standards, you will depend on those who coded it for a lengthy period. This means that only a few will have the technical knowledge to implement changes. You will depend on your team, their time, their will, and their relationship to your business. It also may complicate outsourcing, since asking for help from an external developer will likely require a lot of work hours depending on the level of customization.

One thing we know for sure, digital transformation will make you rethink how you do everything. Every assumption of what you think is your business and every process and task within your business could be called into question. Handling it alone can be scary and frustrating for even the most prepared organizations.

Building from scratch: Potential risks for new developments

If you feel none of the misconceptions apply to you, and you still believe that making something from scratch is the only way of fulfilling your digital transformation, consider the following ideas. Most of them are challenges that you will find along the way. They are also potential risks for any digital project.

1. Developing from scratch will take longer than customizing something that already exists. Let’s say a full platform development takes two years, at least. Using an existing platform or CMS as an engine might save you 70% or more of that time. Think of it like this: instead of building a house, you will be investing in customizing or remodeling one to fit your needs. Don’t worry about the building minutiae, but spend time on the exact customizations that mean the most to you.

2. A lot of libraries, components and ready-made assets won’t be readily available to help. For every open-source platform or CMS out there, there are thousands of add-ons and enhancements that their respective communities have created. Tapping into that collective knowledge will save you time, effort, and pain along the journey. You will have a “safety net” every step of the way.

3. Seamless continuous improvement will be out of the question. Many CMSs and enterprise software platforms include subscriptions that will give you access to additional features, new components for your digital experience, and regularly improved security, plus technical support for the issues that could arise as a result of specific conditions in your environments (e.g. fine tuning for the database platform adopted by your organization, or troubleshooting on the specific version of the operating system that your IT area recommends). Through updates and minor releases, your chosen platform continues to be refined by the hand of its creators. Having this type of constant quality improvement is difficult when you don’t have a committed team for your platform.  

4. Whatever you build, it will be difficult to use for something else. Trying to build something that fits your business but is also multipurposed requires a mature vision and constant investment. This is a complicated option because businesses usually strive for just enough to make something work in the timeframe they have. Thus they often settle for the bare minimum.

5. Integrating with other technologies or an ecosystem will become a full-on initiative. Like the previous idea, integrating your solution with other products (say CRMs, ERPs, mailing services, etc.) will require detailed planning and an intensive development effort. Platforms like Liferay DXP and HCL Digital Experience have been refined so much that they can offer integrations OOTB — a major benefit that a custom solution will not be able to benefit from.  

6. It will consume all of your IT power. Unless your firm is a technology giant, expect to use most of the available IT resources to plan, sketch, and develop a new solution. Even if you manage your own outsourcing, having your team involved is a must. Further, it will require some serious skills to manage the product development, daily operations, and on-going migration needs. It’s no news that many, many projects—about one third—end in overruns.

7. You will be making mistakes by yourself and at your risk. This is probably one of the biggest concerns that should be taken into account, because these types of projects are rarely perfect. As with all uncharted territory, you must include time for errors, rebuilding, strategizing, and re-strategizing. Unlike a solution that has been tested over time, a new platform or product will create major challenges that you and your business will have to face head on with the pocket book in hand.  

Final questions

If you are still thinking about going forward with your custom project, here are some final questions to consider:  

  • Why not have a little bit of both worlds? Use an OOTB solution at your convenience and invest in building from scratch components, special requirements, or customizations for the things that matter most to your firm. Software like Digital Experience Platforms (DXP) can be configured and tailored to your business needs.
  • Have you conducted a “design thinking” exercise? Understanding your business needs from a different perspective can help you realize and consider different types of solutions and possibilities. 
  • How strong is your vision? Can you see in detail how everything looks at the end of the project? This can help you get you through some of the difficult stages of development. 

Now, we believe in building new customized products or software. However, throughout our 15 years of experience as a consulting firm, we have come to see them a bit like camping— you are out on your own in a remote forest, facing nature’s forces, and always carrying your business on your back. Sometimes you have the strength to do it, and sometimes you don’t.

No matter what you do, be smart about it: do your homework, document your process, assess your capabilities and try to identify potential “hidden” costs. And lastly, make sure that you have an experienced partner like Base22 to walk alongside you before, during, and after your digital transformation journey.

At Base22, we specialize in guiding companies through their Digital Transformation journey, no matter at what stage they are. We know leaders need all the inside knowledge they can get to prepare their company for the future. Be sure to check out our whitepaper on Agile Digital Transformation.

This article was written with information provided by Xavier Muñiz, Solution Architect.

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