What most small business owners eventually realize, typically after several years of clunky efforts at application development or managing their data manually, is that most off-the-shelf applications are simply not designed to match the flow or structure of their company’s workflow. Most businesses are one-of-a-kind, and so their internal business software needs to be, too.
Replacing old systems or adding and implementing new ones is time-consuming and requires both experience and expertise. If your organization lacks both…you’re hardly alone. Most entrepreneurs and small business leaders need guidance on how to integrate or develop custom business applications.
Eventually, those shared spreadsheets and project documents have a direct impact on productivity. The more you find yourself managing daily tasks with emails and Slack conversations, the more time you could be saving with automation and trusted data-based solutions. However, in nearly every business vertical, most small to medium-sized businesses have limited resources to develop, implement, scale and manage business software and custom business applications.
When that’s the case, one of three (3) things happen:
- The organization sticks with legacy systems. The issue? Legacy systems might feel familiar and easy to use but do not offer the flexibility and functionality they should.
- Management tries an off-the-shelf solution. This is the main reason so many businesses are turning to cloud solutions for things like sales management and CRM. Many of these are easy and cost-effective fixes. The issue? These solutions are hardly one-size-fits-all, and they rarely meet the specific requirements in industries such as education, healthcare, construction or creative services. Typically, a custom application built to spec is the preferred solution.
- The organization tries to develop something in-house. Building something in-house can give the organization the customization it needs. The issue? Most entrepreneurs and specialized organizations rarely have an internal point person or experience to develop that software, let alone import existing data, train staff and manage the platform effectively in the long-term.
Stated another way: Companies are understandably focused on their core competencies and rarely have the management resources to hire and maintain an in-house developer to oversee a single application, let alone develop a custom solution.
That doesn’t mean that a custom business application is not the way to go. In fact, it is often the best way forward. It just might be that the organization needs to take a different approach to developing one.
Why Build Custom Business Applications?
It wasn’t that long ago that the only data-related solutions for a company were a locally stored database that cost a fortune in time and resources to code, install, develop and update. Cloud solutions eventually came along and solved a lot of headaches for companies that couldn’t afford to support those internal efforts, but those solutions usually only came to market when there was a wider need for them. Thus, most of the available cloud solutions solve problems that are common (and easily solved) for a given industry, but they leave something to be desired when it comes to meeting the more local and specific problems for a given business.
Law firms and medical professionals, for example, need to follow strict privacy and security protocols while also tying into payment and billing systems. Researchers need to keep rigorous records of the specific data they collect in their studies. A construction management firm might need a platform that syncs projects with updated estimates and bids, supplier information, outstanding vendor information and more—keeping in mind that devices in the field might go “offline” at any time.
Most out-of-the-box software is designed to manage single business problems like accounting or linear customer records. One outcome of this design approach is that it often demands that you reroute your workflow to accommodate the software’s capabilities, which can waste time and “water down” what makes your business or service delivery unique in the marketplace. Another outcome is that it introduces problems when it comes to integration: If data ends up needing to be manually entered, even more time is wasted as your staff tracks down updates from different departments and manually inserts that data into different platforms. And that means less time your staff has to focus on the core business.
A custom business app can encompass the most important elements of your workflows, including syncing between back-end systems and customer-facing interfaces, to eliminate confusion and time-consuming, manual processes.
Custom business applications can:
- Increase productivity and reduce operational expenses
- Scale with your business as it grows
- Reduce overall stress for you, your team and your customers
- Satisfy your company’s unique business protocols
Even if you have an internal IT manager, developing a custom business application may not fall into their skillset. Vendors, even with the best of intentions, often offer solutions that may not work for you. And even if those vendors offer a customized variation of their base product, between the licensing fees and customization fees, you could end up paying a lot more out of pocket and still not come remotely close to the actual functionality that will address your individualized needs.
The entire point of automation is to reduce stress and take work off of everyone’s plate. An outside developer that specializes in developing custom business platforms that encompass your organization’s processes is typically the most cost-effective and stress-free solution.
Before You Start Sourcing Custom Business Applications:
If you’re not a product developer or a web developer, creating programs from the ground up may seem daunting. These guideposts can serve as an introduction to the entire process.
First: Identify Your Pain Points
Every solution starts with a problem. As businesses grow and client behavior and expectations evolve, your processes also need reevaluation. For example, in the past, the few dozen clients served by a small business could easily be satisfied receiving invoices and statements via postal mail. That same business today needs to serve hundreds of customers that expect the documents to be delivered instantly via email, or on-demand and accessible via a web portal.
Or maybe you have a not-for-profit and are used to relying on a literal “paper trail” to track your activity and report to donors. But, as a non-profit grows, it can find that the paperwork involved in tracking donations (or volunteer hours, or anything else) is incredibly cumbersome and does not scale.
Before you consider any application development, do this: List the primary data-related business problems you confront daily, weekly or quarterly. Think about how information helps you run your business, and all the times and places that it gets referenced, created, modified, archived, referenced or purged.
Other examples of day-to-day business problems that data automation and improved custom applications can solve:
- Does your customer billing software need to integrate with your CRM?
- What are the awkward and manual workarounds you’ve already made to implement an existing software tool?
- Do existing (both free and paid) cloud document solutions fail to integrate with your other business software or workflow?
- Have you already licensed a cloud-based ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) platform, only to discover that it simply won’t conform to the way your business actually works?
Second: Ask the Team
Introducing a custom business application will impact different aspects of your business. Bring the members of your teams together and spend time discussing where and how a data management system could, and should, unify the disparate elements of your workflow.
Without experienced project manager on staff, you will need a third party or a consultant to facilitate these meetings. An experienced consultant will also mine and document those conversations to develop your custom application’s key components.
Third: Put a Number on it
Every other aspect of your business likely has an ROI attached to it. Your custom business applications should, too. Here are some guidelines to help you shape the overall scope and cost related to ROI:
- How much time and money do you hope to save with smart data automation and localization?
- Could the right custom business application help you scale up, retain existing customers, eliminate paper and postage costs, or help you reduce or slow the costs related to future hiring?
- What is your available budget for app development? How much do you hope to save annually by using a third party over sourcing and hiring permanent staff?
Fourth: Develop and Test
Very few business owners enter their fields with the intention of becoming CRM or CMS experts. Sure, an architect utilizes a CAD program and designers know Photoshop, but that’s usually where software interaction starts and ends.
Before you roll out a custom application in a real-time environment, it needs to be tested in incremental phases. Experienced project management delivers milestones on schedule, and potentially identifies and nominates processes and challenges you may have missed.
Why FileMaker is a Trusted Platform for Custom Business Applications
FileMaker (the flagship product of Claris, a subsidiary of Apple) remains one of the most popular custom software platforms, for good reason. It can be modified quickly and effectively for custom CRMs, ERPs and more. Coders gravitate to it because it’s easy-to-learn, stable, highly functional, and bugs introduced into the code are easy to identify and troubleshoot. It’s been around for decades and is still trusted by dozens of industry-leading companies (Gap, Kohl’s, American Express, United Airlines and many more).
FileMaker runs on all mobile and desktop operating systems, so it can conform to almost any business environment. Base packages start with five (5) seats, allowing you to add more if time or growth demands expansion.
The front end is extremely user-friendly, so you’ll enjoy faster orientation and onboarding for both existing and new staff. As a back end, it manages contacts and content, as well as inventory and other crucial records.
Interested in learning more about FileMaker? Ready to discover how we’ve developed innovative solutions for our clients?
Let’s have a discussion today so we can learn more about how to help your business.