By Kristen McAlister, President, Cerius Executives
Customization used to be a bad word to many business owners. It was viewed as encumbering higher costs and depending on complex IT infrastructure. However, with the availability of more outsourced technology resources and the increased drive for innovation and marketplace gains, customization is becoming a more common business practice.
In fact, I believe in the near future every small business will have on-staff developers who will help build customized technology applications. Whether these applications are client facing or developed for cost-cutting reasons, the number of businesses developing customized solutions is about to hit critical mass. There are enough third party tools available today that you can almost create anything you want without having to start from scratch.
To determine if customizing technology for your small business is a smart strategy, I reached out to our top Chief Technology Officers and asked for their recommendations. Following are five questions every business owner should ask before embarking on the road towards customizing technology.
- Why are you customizing? First, determine if you have considered all available out-of-the-box options. Use the traditional 80/20 rule: try to find an existing product that meets at least 80 percent of what you need, then customize from there. With the variety of platforms that exist — including some of the more popular such as SFDC and WordPress — the ability to have it your way without needing to build it from the ground up is very possible. If there is no other option or it is critical to your company’s business model or strategy, then proceed with caution and with an expert who has done it many times before.
- Is it for internal or external use? Be clear on whether you are automating an existing process within your business or if it’s customer-facing technology. Many companies have a tough time distinguishing between the two and get lost somewhere along the way as to their original intentions. Once you are clear on whether the development is being done for operational improvement or to provide customers with a more enhanced technology-enabled service, product or experience, it sets the foundation to answer the many other questions to come.
- Will the intended user find value with it? This is one of the top pitfalls I have seen companies fall into, including technology start-ups. It is challenging to have a vision in your head and not want everything done and working exactly the way you want it from the very beginning. Make sure you are testing manually first and building in phases. As you gain some success, start to develop, automate or customize the most time-consuming, cumbersome or most customer-facing components. As much as you may think your clients, customers, partners or employees would value a portal to log into and see the exact status of their service or products, test it out first. Provide the information manually with a couple of users at regular intervals. Post it somewhere like Dropbox and monitor how many times it is accessed. Don’t be one of those companies that waste hundreds of thousands of dollars building customer facing technology only to find the customers ended up not using it or seeing the value in it.
- Are you incorporating feedback at each phase? At each stage in the process, stop and get feedback. Try to distinguish between the feedback that says it would be “cool” to have this feature vs. the must-have and highly-valued features. It is surprising how quickly a system design can change once it gets used. A good rule of thumb is it costs $1 to change something in the design phase, $10 to change it during the development phase, and $100 to change it post-development once it is launched. To avoid costly changes, use the above phased process and get feedback at each phase before moving to the next. You may have had the greatest vision ever for a tool or product but, if it holds little value or doesn’t solve your customer’s need, it will be the highest costing vision ever.
- How will you find the development team? Finding the right development team either as hiring internal employee(s) or outsourced contractor(s) is commonly the biggest challenge. Whomever you hire should, understand your business — not just the technology — is being used. Despite what your research has already told you, understand their recommendations and approach. Also, get a clear technology roadmap up-front so you know what to expect and the total costs involved so you are on the same page. Ensure you have an established communication system as well. As much as we are comfortable with email, texts, and the phone, these are not effective communication methods when working with a development team. There should be a more structured system in place such as Asana or Trello. Finally, know every cost up front. No work should be done without a full scope, proposal, and approval.
About Cerius Executives
As one of the largest North American providers of contract executives for part-time, temporary, interim, and consulting assignments, Cerius has a network of thousands of executives from Operations, Finance, Sales, Marketing, Manufacturing, IT, Engineering, and Human Resources. These executives are available to step into companies on short notice to fill a sudden gap in leadership, to run a key initiative, or to provide specialized skills and knowledge for a temporary period of time. Cerius serves clients of all sizes from virtually every industry and is headquartered in Irvine, CA.
Kristen McAlister is President/COO and Co-Owner of Cerius Executives. She has extensive experience in leading major acquisitions, sales and operations initiatives with small and large privately-held companies to publicly-held international companies. Kristen has spent the last ten years facilitating companies on how to market, sell, present and execute their goals with clients and adding value through operations, sales, marketing and entrepreneur coaching. Connect with Kristen on twitter @KrisExecutives.