For every Chipotle out there that produces a killer business app that really reflects their brand and fits seamlessly into their operations, there are hundreds of other entrepreneurs wasting their time and money.

In 2008, our founder was running a couple of grocery and wine stores in New York City and generally enjoying some pretty good returns. He did however, have one consistent issue: his Windows-based POS System. This old-school system ran from an in-house server that he kept in the basement. It not only looked unsightly, but it took up a lot of space that he didn’t have to spare. What’s more, the thing was extremely unreliable, crashing intermittently – and often when it mattered most. He made the decision that a lot of entrepreneurs make. To build his own software.

Fast forward about seven years and ShopKeep’s iPad POS System is now an industry staple, serving thousands of independent business owners just like him across the country. And yet, experience and the statistics show that his story is an anomaly. Most entrepreneurs who set out to build their own tools are throwing money down a bottomless pit. So, how do you know if it’s worth building your own app? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. What’s Your Experience Level?

Have you ever managed a development team? Do you know the difference between UI and UX? Do you know what a wireframe is? Before setting up ShopKeep, our founder spent years working with software, so while he’ll be the first to admit that he’s no crack coder, he knows enough to manage people who are. Nowadays there are lots of services out there like Bizness Apps, AppsMe, and Como that can do a lot of the heavy lifting, but the fact remains, the more tech-savvy you are, the less chance you’re going to get taken for a ride.

2. What’s the landscape out there for what you’re looking for?

The first thing our founder did when he got fed up with his old-school Windows POS system wasn’t researching developers, he started looked for solutions that met his minimum criteria:

  • Cloud-based with data access anywhere,
  • functioned offline. He did a thorough audit of what was out there and decided that it was worth building his own tool.

The key takeaway here is that even when you build your own ‘perfect’ app, there will still be compromises. Figure out the Minimum Viable Product that you’re looking for and take a good look around to see if that need is being met by a third party provider. The good news is that the last decade has seen an explosion in the number of software services aimed at independent business owners. Silicon Valley has very much woken up the market, so whether it’s inventory management, timeclock, point of sale, or even interactive 3-D store design, there is now almost definitely ‘an app for that’.

3. How bespoke are you looking for?

Is there a template you can personalize? Are you looking to ‘find a guy’ who can help you knock something together? Or are you looking for a full-blown personalized solution.

It’s important here to differentiate between apps you’re building to aid the operations of your business (such as our founder’s POS Software example), and the desire to build a branded app that your consumers can use to interact with you – through reserving appointments or ordering food in advance. The latter service is the more achievable of the two. In fact, the services listed above and others such as AppMakr will allow you to do so relatively easily. The question here will become how bespoke you need to go. Some will offer non-coding options where you can simply ‘drag and drop’ elements such as images, blog feeds, and forms to create your app. Others will offer the more complete solution, naturally at an extra cost.

4. What’s the ROI?

Whether you’re building an operational or a consumer app, don’t do it because you think it’s cool. Define exactly what you expect to automate and what you expect to achieve as an end result. There will be a very real dollar investment made in getting any kind of software built, so it’s important that you’re tracking the results all the way back to dollars and cents. It’s not enough to argue that it meets a need. Define what that need is – say consumers booking their own haircut appointments – and then figure out the business case. Will it save you staffing costs because you don’t need someone manning the phone? Will it increase the number of bookings per day because consumers like the convenience? Define the benefits you expect to see in concrete monetary terms and project how long you will need to recover your initial expense. Only then will you start gauging how much you could initially spend on the development, or if the build is even worth it in the first place.

If you’re not thinking this way about every aspect of your business, you’re probably not running efficiently. Take a look at Lean Retail 101 if you want to learn more about running an intelligent, ROI-focused business.

So before building your own app, answer these questions to yourself as honestly as possible. If the answers are still yes, let us know what your plans are in the comments below.

About the Author

Paul Nugent is a small business advocate, and Head of Marketing at ShopKeep point of sale’s UK headquarters. Paul uses his background in the startup space, along with his POS system expertise, to allow small business owners to make informed decisions within their specific budgets.