I went to IKEA recently to buy some more furniture for my office. Whilst wandering around trying to find the desk I wanted, I happened across a one-bedroom showroom apartment. The designers of this apartment had spent a lot of time and effort getting the most out of very limited space: so much so that they had fitted this entire home, including shower room, kitchenette, dining table, lounge with sofa bed and wardrobe storage into only 25 square metres.

Think about that for a second. That’s five metres by five metres. It’s an extroadinarily small space to fit in a whole home, but they had managed it. What’s more, it looked great! Everything was set up perfectly: you felt as if you could just move in there and then.

The problem

There’s a problem with this kind of apartment though: what would happen if you actually tried to recreate that exact layout in your own 25 square metre apartment? If you went around the IKEA version and painstakingly wrote down all of the different pieces of furniture you’d need, loaded them into a van and took them home, you’d invariably find they wouldn’t fit. You’d want to make some small changes here and there, which would unavoidably have knock-on effects in such a small space. You’d end up taking half of the furniture back as you couldn’t use it. Uneven walls, annoyingly placed sockets and irksome light fittings would make a mess of the finely crafted design.

So what’s the best way to fill a real apartment of this size? Plan the furniture based around the exact contours of the apartment, rather than trying to fit the apartment round the furniture. Better still, get in someone who knows what they’re doing to help you. Buy as little furniture as possible and work with the space you have.

“Off the shelf” software is a showroom

Buying software is a little like this. Whether you’re a startup or an existing business, it’s tempting to buy an off the shelf solution to solve all your problems. It seems so easy, and the vendors often promise so much. It’s like the beautiful showroom apartment: it’s affordable, it all fits together so beautifully, and you can start using it straight away.

This can work when the problem is well defined, you have a truly blank slate, or the software is just one piece of the puzzle, but most businesses are rougher round the edges that off the shelf software would like. The solution you’ve just purchased is never a solution to your specific problem: it’s a general solution to the problem the vendor thought you would have a few months or years ago when they thought up the product. Inevitably the solution is for a slightly different problem to the one you have now. In the case of startups, which don’t even know what the problem they’re trying to solve is yet, they can be constrained by off the shelf software extremely quickly.

What can end up happening is one of two things:

  • You fit your business around the software. Your business processes become trapped in the workings of the software you’re using, making your business less able to respond to change in the market. This is a dangerous situation for any business to be in.

  • You shoehorn the software into your business. You hire the vendor to customise the software for you, or you attempt to do it yourself. With a well written off the shelf system this may have some mileage. However, the danger is that the total cost ends up being a lot higher than you bargained for, and the system becomes a grostesque elephantine mess which only just hangs together.

A potential alternative

What’s the alternative? You could investigate building something that fits your business exactly. Bespoke software isn’t always the best solution: it’s always a trade off. However, I’d suggest always getting advice from a bespoke software developer before spending large amounts on any off the shelf system. A great developer should always help you spend as little as possible to get what you want, so your total cost might be less than you think.

The same is true for startups. If your budget is really constrained, how about building something really small from scratch, pulling together as much existing code as possible? Don’t reinvent the wheel - to extend the showroom analogy, that would be like building your own furniture from raw materials - but don’t assume an off the shelf piece of software will run 90% of your business for you just the way you want it to.

So for any moderately complex business problem, be careful of off-the-shelf one-size-fits-all “it’ll do everything you want for a fraction of the price!” software products. Next time you make a decision like this, get some advice, and ask yourself whether you’re purchasing the beautiful showroom apartment, and then trying to shoehorn it in to a place that it’s never going to fit.