Bespoke Versus Off-the-Shelf Software

Bespoke Versus Off-the-Shelf Software

26 March 2021

In today’s competitive, digital environment, forward-thinking companies know to invest in exceptional software. The marketplace offers a wide range of off-the-shelf software products and services that can be sufficient enough to suit most business needs, but as a business experiences growth and new systems need to be put in place, investing in bespoke software development can directly tackle all of your business requirements. In this blog, Arishi explains the difference between bespoke and off-the-shelf software, how we brought enterprise rigour to the ustwo agency, and how to find the right solution that is agile, cost-effective, and scaled to support business growth.

Bespoke vs off-the-shelf software

Bespoke software is flexible, scaleable and tailored to your exact business requirements. Simply put, there are no existing equivalents in the market that can tick all of the boxes. When our founders started work in the industry over 20 years ago, they had to write everything from scratch, due to the high cost and low availability of off-the-shelf solutions. The key advantages of the bespoke software development approach were that the client received everything they needed, every aspect was controlled, and therefore, there was less room for error. In a perfect world, every company would opt for an entirely custom software route if it were not for the comparatively high cost of development and the time and resources it takes to build and maintain this type of system. As a business grows, software requirements change and external variables such as security, web browser iterations and server updates need to be considered when it comes to bespoke code. If your custom solution and technical team do not evolve together with these changes, malfunctions become inevitable and companies tend to make the switch towards off-the-shelf.

So, why is it called off-the-shelf? There was a time in and around the dial-up era, when you used to be able to walk into a shop and buy a CD-ROM that came with support that lasted until the next version was released. Today’s off-the-shelf solution looks and feels a bit different and consists of ready-made software usually purchased by a subscription or license that you can download instantly. This is comparable to how Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office operate today. Some of the main advantages of off-the-shelf software are that it is often very cost-effective, easily accessible, tried and tested and packaged with high-quality support. Unlike bespoke software's concerns with updates and maintenance, opting to go down an off-the-shelf route allows someone else to take on the high maintenance and support burden instead of a small IT team or an agency.

However, in many cases, off-the-shelf software does not perform as needed, causing the cost of investment to rise. Companies start to purchase additional off-the-shelf solutions with ‘low up-front costs’ and growing annual fees, account upgrades, added user/seat costs, and further software support as the business develops or changes direction. What went from a few cheap off-the-shelf solutions can snowball into a suite of expensive subscriptions that can exceed the costs of a bespoke solution without any of the advantages. Therefore, the key difference between bespoke software and off-the-shelf software is that bespoke adapts to your business, whilst off-the-shelf forces your business to adapt to the technology and its limitations.

So, what is better: bespoke or off-the-shelf software? The quick answer: both!

There is no ‘one size fits all’ when choosing between an off-the-shelf and a bespoke software solution. Thankfully, software choices are more distinct now than they were before, so blending the two is the optimal choice for many companies. Specialist technology companies like us will recommend off-the-shelf solutions that match client needs up to a point and then build in bespoke development to ensure that the solution is adjusted to suit all business needs, works with existing systems and is scaled to support expansion.

Let's compare this to buying a suit. In the past, the options were to go to Marks and Spencer to buy a ready-made suit or to Saville Row where every detail was tailored to your needs. Today,  you can order a semi-bespoke suit where you can select pre-made sleeves which are then put together with a tailored jacket. Our Managing Director, Andrew Elia explains, “That union of off-the-shelf and bespoke is where it works for a lot of the industry now, particularly in how we can deliver functionality for our clients. Clients want their project to be cost-effective, but even more so, we have clients who give us tight deadlines to work to, so if you already have some of the tools you are familiar with and can pick up and run with them, that means you can cut through tasks a lot of quicker. Depending on the size of the project, you can save months by combining the two software options."

Combining these contrasting solutions is the software sweet spot in terms of time-to-market and cost, particularly with the increased adoption of cloud-based software and API integration. Even though we can build a CMS completely from scratch, we prefer to use Magnolia’s CMS as a starting point. We then build a lot of bespoke development on top of it to fulfil all our clients' needs. Andrew explained why Magnolia ticks all the boxes when it comes to the mixed development process. “Magnolia is very customisable and easily integrated into other systems. From our point of view, it is a really good foundation for lean applications that we can build on top of it. We can extend software systems with Magnolia at the core. It’s a bit like going for a prefabricated building paired with personalised components. In construction terms, why lay every single brick yourself if you can get pre-made walls off-the-shelf? It just means that you can build the house quicker and more reliably.”

Practising what we preach: ustwo case study

ustwo, a highly regarded, global digital agency was experiencing rapid growth within their company. The internal systems they were using were suitable for the original 20 members staff but after reaching over 300 employees, spanning four different territories and multiple currencies, their homegrown solution was no longer fit for purpose. We were asked to provide consulting services to the board and senior staff on transitioning ustwo's internal systems into a larger scale, enterprise-grade solution that would support the growth of the business, as well as helping them run the project from a technical perspective. This two-year project involved strong collaboration with ustwo's internal team to map out existing processes across each of their international divisions and devise a more consistent solution.

Our results were two-fold. First, we mapped out the company's processes which included timesheeting, finance, human resources, purchasing, operations and profitability tracking on their previous system. Using this knowledge, we identified potential ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and HCM (Human Capital Management) systems. This enabled us to help them to select the right solution from several different candidate vendors and to present the choices to the board. The solution was based on the popular Salesforce CRM platform. Thereafter, we worked closely with chosen partners and the internal team to help with both the change management process and the transition of data and services between the old and new systems.

Next, we built connections that bridged the previous system's essential features with new systems running within Salesforce. Through extensive technical consultancy, we were able to help ustwo define a strategy that integrated a number of third-party services alongside the new system and we built them the tools to support this process. Finally, we worked with ustwo's key departments to ensure all employees fully understood how to transition to their new systems.


One of the hardest parts of developing software is planning ahead. We can help define your tech strategy and recommend the solution that will work best for you, both today and in the long term. Driven by your vision, we will work with you to develop a fully personalised, flexible and secure approach to your business software.

Get in touch to start your development project or learn more about the types of development projects we work on in our bespoke software brochure.


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