Don’t Let Software Vendors Dictate Your Business Processes

Every company is unique, at least every company worth building.

All companies increasingly rely on software to operate.

It is impossible for enterprise software companies to make their products infinitely customizable to fit every company’s unique workflows. They don’t want to become like Microsoft Word at its worst.

Microsoft World with all settings enabled.

Many tools come with workflows, explicit or implicit. They work well as long as you follow the process they designed. Software is typically built around “industry standard” workflows.

This, in turn, becomes a problem for you.

You don’t want your hiring to be the same as everyone else’s hiring — you will lose the best talent to companies that do hiring better. You don’t want your sales processes to be the same as everyone else — you will lose customers to competitors who sell better.

When you try to make enterprise software work in your unique way, you inevitably reach its limits of flexibility and realize that it does not allow your process to work exactly like you need it to.

When faced with this problem, most people give up and take an easy path: compromise and get the most out of what the existing software can give. Every compromise adds friction to the wheels of your company’s machine and damages your business in the long run.

This article is about the hard path. If you want your company’s systems to fit your unique business processes like a glove, keep reading.

Start With a Prototype

Usually you start with a vaguely defined idea of how you want things to work and refine it over time. Most people grossly over-estimate their capability to design a good process from the first attempt. Don’t be one of them. Start with a prototype.

Use a general-purpose tool like Google Docs, Airtable, or JIRA. They are extremely powerful and can get you very far if you put some effort into configuring them.

Many people want to “get out of spreadsheets”. They are right — you should get out of spreadsheets as well, but only after you built a prototype.

When your process is working well, and your biggest problem is that general-purpose tools require too many clicks and leads to poor data quality — it is the time to look for a specialized tool.

If you start with a specialized tool, you inevitably end up locked into suboptimal workflows. And by that time you can’t change much because you already negotiated a budget and trained people to use the tool — they won’t let you go back to spreadsheets.

Run a Proof of Concept

Don’t take a lazy path and purchase software based on sales pitches and demos. Try it out. If you started with a prototype — you already know how your process works. If you did not, at least describe a few most important workflows and implement them with a few tools you consider.

No amount of documentation and guided demos will replace getting people who will be actually using the software try it out for a week or two.

If a vendor does not allow you to try the tool before buying it — run away. There are many possible reasons why a company won’t allow PoC, but none of them are good for you.

Get an Engineer

By the time my current company had 100 people, we had over 10 custom applications built specifically for us. By the time we had 1000 people, we built over 50 custom applications that run our business processes.

Due to advances in cloud computing, software tools, and frameworks, building software is simpler and cheaper than ever before. It is simpler and cheaper than you think. If you don’t have engineers building or extending your enterprise software, you are missing on a huge opportunity. It is not just for companies with thousands of employees anymore.

Chances are you even have people in your company who can write code or build an application using no-code systems using Zapier or Bubble. If, somehow, you don’t have them — find one on a freelance marketplace like UpWork or TopTal.

There is a caveat though: to extend applications you purchased from vendors, they need to have a decent API. In fact, you should never buy third-party software that does not have a decent API. Sooner or later you will want to extend it and you will hit a brick wall.

Most enterprise software companies know this, and if you ask, they will tell you that they have an API. Don’t believe them. Building good API is hard and most companies cut corners. If you are not an engineer, ask an engineer you trust to evaluate the API and tell you if it is good.

Get a capable and motivated engineer to work on building or extending software to fit your business processes — you will be surprised by how much value and how fast they will add.

Avoid All-in-One Software

Chances that a tool that does just one thing fits your business processes perfectly is low. Chances that a software suite that does 1000 things fits your business processes is non-existent.

Software vendors experience a constant pressure to say “yes, we have this feature” during their sales cycles. Over time, for most companies, it leads to bloated products that do 1000 things, but do none of them well. Very few companies resist temptation and manage the scope of their products well.

Don’t be lazy and naive to think that you can purchase one solution that will fit all your workflows.

There are millions of software companies. Thousands of them do one or a few things very well. Pick software that does exactly what you need very well and integrate it with other software that does other thing you need very well. This investment will pay off many times over.

Building software and data systems that enable business operations; VP of Business Engineering @DataRobot

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