Should You Develop an In-House Repair and Service Management Solution or Use Purpose-Built Software?

Should You Develop an In-House Repair and Service Management Solution or Use Purpose-Built Software?

Bas De Vries
Bas De Vries - COO and Director of IT-Operations at Amac

Only the biggest and most unique businesses need to dedicate the resources needed to build a software solution. While repair shops might have unique requirements, there are millions of repair businesses in the world with overlapping requirements.

Yet, more than a few repair and service businesses are still using a Filemaker solution or a basic database platform that's been modified or developed to meet workflow requirements. This also often means that they're using other solutions, like a POS (Point of Sale) platform or an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) product.

For companies that do go into more detailed development, the journey isn't easy. And there are compromises to be made at the end of it.

If you're considering developing a solution of your own or are struggling with maintaining one, we want to help you understand what's involved in doing it well. It can become the sort of project that eats up time and resources that should be allocated to business opportunities.

It's a story we, at Fixably, can tell from experience. There were many trying years and the errors cost our CEO Joel Mansnerus a lot of time and considerable investments. There were multiple in-house projects that were great at the start, but reality intervened quickly. Resources were inadequate and truly professional development is needed to achieve a business-grade solution.

You can have the MVP (minimum viable product) up and running in no time but, do you really want to live in a sandcastle when the heavy shower hits? It’s easy to start something new and have a quick initial impact. But, when you look back, you realize there was significant time spent learning things before you can say you’ve built something impressive.

"You can reach the MVP level quite quickly, especially if you have someone on your team that is already capable of coding, who understands the basic process," says Joel. "Doing it solo or in a small team is generally quicker than working with a larger team. 

"And, to be honest, if you're relying on one developer, you're better off with an absolute genius. We got lucky in the beginning. I've never seen things happen that quickly, features just popping up, wishing for the next one, and having it delivered the next day. But we could not keep the momentum going."

Developing Software is Significant Investment

This is the biggest factor to consider. Software development is expensive and it takes time. There's no foolproof way to estimate the time it will take to create a solution that you can really use for your repair business or even a minimum viable product.

You should be willing to invest in it until that point. Software development companies sell the idea just as much as the product and build their business on external investment and venture capital funding. This, unfortunately, is not an option for in-house solutions.

"We tried to build a solution three separate times and failed (after building the MVP pretty quickly), and it really wasn’t about the lack of our developer's skills," says Joel.

"The costs and time went up with each run. Our repair and service business just grew out of all the solutions we made and required more — more resources, more integrations, and more experience, more time, more focus. 

"We tried to build the perfect solution to run the business while expanding the business and lost our focus far too many times."

It's an experience that some of our clients share. MacRent, an Apple reseller from Sweden, also considered developing their own software platform. The difficulties were obvious, and primarily because of the resources an in-house application would need.

“So I talked to some colleagues in Sweden, and different AASPs (Apple Authorized Service Providers),” explains Noah Gibson, CTO, MacRent. “They said it’s great to have your own systems because you have control over it. But it’s difficult to keep up with the API changes and some of the technical requirements in the backend. It's quite time-consuming and costly.”

The time you spend developing an MVP while paying for an external solution is wasteful for a cash-sensitive retail business like repair and service shops.

The other option would be to hurry development and use a less-than-efficient solution. So you, your employees, and maybe even your customers will have to make an effort to adapt to accommodate a less-than-ready solution.

This would be an opportunity cost. Your business is adapting to the tool rather than the tool adapting to your requirements. It could result in anything from higher turnaround times to dissatisfied customers.

"If you know that you can make money with your business, and suspect that with a proper system you can further improve your profitability, my strong advice is to try out the existing ones first," advises Joel. The opportunity costs are lower this way.

Finding and Paying for Talent

The very best software developers cost a ton of money and would represent a big chunk of what you set apart for developing the solution. You'll have to find a good mix of experience and entry-level talent to average out the cost.

However, money doesn't solve recruiting issues. Software developers are difficult to recruit under the best circumstances, but even more so when you're building an in-house solution for a niche business. You'll have to convince developers to get on board and stay for the long term.

"I've talked with hundreds of repair businesses directly and seen far too many internal software development projects, apart from participating in a few myself," says Joel.

"Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't start one anymore without having at least three to five full-time developers. This would be a simple project with few or no integrations or a ton of time, but that’s not realistic for most businesses.

"For companies that subscribe to Fixably's performance or enterprise solutions, we've replaced teams of five or six developers maintaining an in-house solution full-time. For smaller workshops with a few hundred repairs a month, a single developer might keep things rolling."

However, there are risks involved with this approach.

Consider the work needed to integrate Apple's GSX (Global Service Exchange), their unified portal for parts, training, and manuals. The API was recently changed and keeping the integration intact was a big task.

"Who really has time to manage a totally separate project, even though it is a huge dependency for the repair and service line? I've been juggling these two realities and won't recommend it," Joel adds.

You would also have to spend a significant amount of time on hiring. Once again, there's an opportunity cost involved in shifting focus away from your repair shop to build something that might not even work.

Plus, there's always the risk of relying too much on your lead developers. There isn't always another person who can step up and keep the project running, and in life and business, thing do happen. 

Samuele De Marco, founder of an independent repair shop and reseller in Udine, Italy, is another customer who chose Fixably after having tried to build a custom solution.

"We had some problems with our developer and so we started looking for other options," says Samuele. "We then saw that most companies don't develop their own software, but bought (subscribed) one and adapted it for repairs. And after a quick call with Fixably, we realized that it suited us (even more than adapting a general-purpose ERP)."

Domain Experience in Service Industry

Even if you do find talented developers, it's unlikely that they will have relevant experience in the repair business. Developing a software solution needs two sets of expertise.

One, you need the technical expertise to know which tech stack and what methods are best suited for the project. There are far too many ways to build something, but each choice has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Would a web-based solution be better for you, even though it's only for use in one or two locations? Do you need to factor in the possibility of needing an Android or iOS app in the future? Which databases offer the flexibility required by repair industry logistics?

Two, you need to know how a repair and service business works so that the features are developed to meet the best practices maintained by the sector.

Finding developers who can do both would be difficult. The best alternative would be to set apart enough time for the developers to get acquainted with your business needs and what you expect to build to meet those needs.

Cost of Technology & Equipment

Open-source software is a good way to get started with development, but there is no way to avoid some long-term investment in the tools needed to create a solution that truly supports your repair business.

In addition, the cost of high-end equipment needed for developers would be a recurring expense. At Fixably, we know that it takes more than just three to five developers to create a product that is good enough to manage a repair shop efficiently. In addition, you'll also need to keep in-house talent to maintain and improve the product.

Maintenance Expenditure: Integrations, Firefighting, Legal Requirements

Developing a software product is just the first part of the process. The more important aspect is in maintaining the solution. This could mean many things.

For instance, you need to keep integrations updated as services change their APIs. Apple's GSX API integration is an essential integration for Apple Authorized Service Providers. Apple makes changes to its APIs every so often, and that means you have to make changes to the integration your developers had set up.

We’ve gone from integrating Apple GSX API v1 to GSX API v2 and now GSX API v3 — each requiring development and maintenance.

What if you need to add Samsung iGSPN (GSPN in North America) integration? Or work with brands that require you to source parts from authorized distributors? You need to be aware that integrating a third-party service into your own involves a dependency over which you have no control.

Another aspect would be the changes needed to meet legal requirements. The most common change that we've seen in recent years is in relation to privacy laws and data protection requirements. This is especially important for retail businesses that gather the necessary information to process payments, create user accounts, and so on.

The most common tasks relating to maintenance would be fixing bugs and firefighting to keep the solution up and running day-to-day. All software has bugs and fixing things that break is just a daily part of what software companies do.

Project Management

Unless you want to take on a second full-time role, it's best to hire a product manager to oversee the development. But if you are thinking of doing it on your own, you need to be aware of just how much time you'll be spending on it.

The process of building software has changed over the past few decades. It's a process that involves multiple layers of planning and execution that results in faster development and more efficient ways of working. To do it professionally, you need a product manager who has an overview of focus areas, stress points, dependencies, technology, workflows, and so on.

If you're going to play the role, you need to understand project management and software development to go with your experience in the repair industry. 

Troubles with Outsourcing

One option to bring down the cost of talent and the tech you have to use would be to outsource development. This would give you the in-house software you need with only supervision left up to you.

Unfortunately, our experience has been that you need to have some experience in software project management to be able to work with an outside team. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to track and keep up with the results you want.

Then you've got to factor in that you're paying for time rather than execution. You can write in clauses that protect you against failures to deliver, but you'll still have to accept some losses. Any future integrations or development requirements will be considered separate projects and active maintenance will be costly or sometimes not a viable option.

Slower Innovation

After the solution goes into production and is in use at your repair shop, you'll realize that a lot more developer time is spent on maintenance. This could include bug fixes, integrations, or dealing with unexpected technical issues.

Unless you have a large team that divides these tasks, it's going to slow down the development of your product. Any new features you'd want or any upgrades to the system would have to wait because having the system up and running will always be the priority.

This could also mean sticking with a particular accounting or POS integration because creating a new one for a better service isn't just a viable option. It takes significant time to maintain or develop an integration. Imagine having to go through the process every time you need to try out a new service. In contrast, a specialized service maintains a number of integrations and is constantly developing new integrations.

Software companies dedicate resources to creating new features, bringing more efficiency to existing systems, more integrations, and even UI improvements because there's a financial upside to offering such improvements. This would be in addition to ensuring that any maintenance work happens on time and you never even have to know about what goes in the backend.

CougaTech Repair is a campus repair shop in the US that replaced their custom solution with Fixably because of the many features that address repair business needs.

"My service center is a lot larger than most of the campus stores in the nation, which is why we kind of needed a robust system like Fixably," says Michelle Monk, Manager, CougharTech Repair.

"We wanted more functionality than what any of the other options could provide. Our custom solution was loosely based on Trello (a project management tool), except that we wanted a lot more control over the different locations of the service orders."

Most Important: It Takes Your Focus from the Repair Business to the Management Tool

You run a repair and service business. That is and should remain your core focus. Any project that takes valuable management time away from improving that business isn't to your benefit unless you can be pretty sure that the software will be a major driver in your business. Unfortunately, it's a guarantee that no development team in the world can make.

"At some point, you realize that a repair business needs a complex toolkit that combines the features from an ERP, a CRM, an RPA solution, an e-commerce platform, and an advanced communications module," says Joel.

"Every three-letter product you add brings more efficiency to the equation if you want to ensure that the tools are optimized precisely for your business.

"This dream set of solutions would put the focus on your actual business to serve your clients, maintain the highest possible customer satisfaction, and meet all other KPIs to defend your position against rivals. Put simply, you can justify asking customers for higher margins because you're offering the highest quality service.

"If you've decided on an in-house solution, my recommendation is to get a team of 10 people and hire a management team to run the project. Try to network with as many service providers as possible to get ideas that make it better than the average in-house single-company solution.

"Quadruple any estimates you have, even if you're planning a simple ERP. It's not just about the platform but all the integrations towards a POS, OEM portals, logistics partners, and so on. Then you've got to worry about security, performance, maintenance, and your long-term strategy for how what you've built aligns with your business."

What Subscribing to a Specialized Software Solution Offers

  • Broad expertise: Fixably is created by domain experts. In addition, there is a mix of talent that broadens the scope of the product. This means bringing together developers who have experience building user-friendly, dependable software and professionals from the repair and service industry. Combine the best of both worlds, and we're building something that offers value for all repair and service providers.
  • Learn from everyone: We like to say that our system is based on well over a million repairs logged on our platform. That's not an exaggeration, and we expect to hit multimillion yearly volumes in the coming year. Every time a repair shop uses Fixably, we learn something new and we use what we learn to build a better version of the platform.
  • New Features, Faster: Increased focus always results in faster innovation. If you've got a team with diverse talents working on the same problem full time, the results will show. An in-house development team might lack the time and resources to match this pace.
  • Lower Costs, Price Forecast: By using a service that is used by a large number of repair and service companies, you get to spread the risk and share the cost of development. This lowers the subscription cost for all clients. In addition, you get to know exactly how much it will cost you a year or a month. No surprises to throw your budget out of order.
  • Better Support: Customer service is important, and there are few industries like the repair business that understand what it really means. Fixably is built to meet high expectations, and that means providing a level of support that keeps your business functioning efficiently.
  • Focus on Repair & Service Business: Specialized software will keep adding features that meet the requirements of most of their clients. For us, it means finding ways to help repair shops and workflows.

Five Things You Need to Know Before You Develop an In-House Software Product:

  1. Always budget for delays
  2. Never underestimate the number of developers you'll need
  3. Project management is critical and takes a lot of time
  4. Outsourcing will be a full-time job for a senior business role within your organization
  5. Scaling costs more — more resources, more knowledge, and more experience

There have been great successful in-house projects, where everything is optimized to run a truly efficient repair business. However, these are projects that have taken 10 or more years to build. The basic solution works well with in-house processes, but there’s often technical debt involved.

A great, well-documented, modern system that has your processes streamlined has a cost of ownership that hits hard for even the biggest companies.

Would you be willing to accept the cost of the 20 different integrations you need to be on top of internal digitalization, especially when clients depend on it? Can you pay $50k-100k to update an essential integration? What does it cost you to ensure data security? Is your product penetration tested? Who's on call if the system goes down? Do you have a backup plan?

The worst-case scenario would be the failure of the internal product. It’s not about the cost of development, but the time spent, the resources used, and the opportunities lost when you could have been running a profitable business.

These are processes that we manage for you because that's what we do. We built it in-house but soon realized that true development would need economies of scale. If you want a repair management solution that is and will continue to be built to organize complicated repair, Fixably is your answer. Book a demo now to know more.

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