When to use custom software, and when to use a custom spreadsheet
There is often an argument between Excel developers and software developers, as to when to use each one. Each one could potentially badmouth the other, in order to create demand for their own products. To find a balanced, and fair comparison, and to help you understand the facts, we have brought together two specialists. Richard Sumner, the owner of Spreadsheet Solutions, who specialises in building macro-free Excel spreadsheets (no programming) to speak for spreadsheets. We have also asked Andrew Barker, who owns Goggle Software, and created custom CRM solutions, to speak for software. Here are the parameters which they have agreed are good indicators to look out for when deciding on custom-made software or purpose-built spreadsheets.
Volume of data
This is one issue for spreadsheets, especially stand-alone ones. If you have formulas attached to 5,000 rows of data for example, you should be alright. If you have formulas attached to 50,000 rows of data, you could run into trouble. The problem with spreadsheets is that they do all the calculations at once, so a large spreadsheet (in disk space size) could slow down to the point of not working. So, if you’re analysing stock items (for example) and you have 1000 lines, Excel could handle that. Doing the same functions with 100,000 lines, could prove to be too much. With software, you simply use more space to store the data, but as it doesn’t do all the processing at once, it doesn’t affect the software nearly as much as a spreadsheet would be affected. So, the sheer volume of data is the first thing to consider, because this could immediately rule spreadsheets out. It’s hard to give an exact figure here, as it depends on the functions attached to the data, but thousands of rows are usually alright, and hundreds of thousands of rows are usually an issue.
Depth and complexity of data
By depth of data, we mean how many layers you have to the desired solution. So, if you need to monitor many aspects of a project for example. Let’s say that you take pages of notes each time you speak to a client, and these consist of times, dates, courses of action, etc. That can be a pain to capture it all in Excel. Excel is great for capturing key components (dates, times, values, etc) but not great with capturing text, notes, accompanying documents, etc. So, if you need a CRM to store all the client notes, as well as all communication for example, a spreadsheet can become too complicated. Software could store such items and then simply reference to them when needed, so they are not always front and centre. A spreadsheet would need to have a place for all of them, and too much information would over-complicate it. So, if the data that you wish to capture is complex or there is simply a lot of it, then software may be required. Having said that, it’s always good to chat to someone in the know as to where the limit of a spreadsheet is, as they can do more than many think. You could also combine a spreadsheet with files in folders, to be able to store relevant documents. If you need it all within the CRM, then spreadsheets will likely not work, and you’d need to go for software.
Compatibility with other programmes
Almost all software programmes brag about being compatible with Excel, but that is not really true. What they mean is that they export data as a CSV which can be used in Excel. That is only part of the job, but the spreadsheet needs to be built to understand that data. If that data changes, it can cause issues with the spreadsheet. When programming software, APIs can often be used to ‘talk’ to other programmes, and these are usually more robust that exporting CSV data. Also, these are often behind the scenes, so more seamless than transferring data manually. Sometimes people want to see the data that is being transferred, and they want to be involved in that process, and so they use spreadsheets for that very reason. There is a time and a place for this, as Excel can use data form all sorts of sources. However, when doing automated tasks like sending emails automatically, etc, that is a job for programmed software rather than a spreadsheet.
Users, permissions, and accessibility
There is flexibility on programmes like SharePoint, where you can set user access, etc, but it is not ideal with things like CRMs. As you may need someone to access elements of a CRM, while others access other elements, which all come together for the management. This is tricky (if even possible) with spreadsheets. A CRM software package will likely have levels of use for various users and would possibly also be accessible from a mobile device. While there is an Excel app, it is often tricky to use when looking at a complex spreadsheet on a small screen. Software can often adapt for mobile usage, but Excel can’t really do so. If you need different access levels for different people, and for people to be able to use different devices (and operating systems), then it would be an advantage to go with custom software over spreadsheets. Just let the software developer know what you need before they go and build a solution as that may be something for them to consider.
There are some functions that just can’t be done using spreadsheets. Now, Richard deals with macro-free spreadsheets that don’t use programming (macros are simply modules of coding within Excel), so that is what he has been comparing here. There are people out there who use this code within Excel, so they can somewhat close the gap between (macro-free) spreadsheets and software. There are certainly functions that can’t be achieved in a macro-free spreadsheet but can be done with a macro or in programmed software. We can’t list all those elements here, but they do exist. The best way to see what can be done in a spreadsheet is to ask someone like Richard. Most people only know the basics of Excel, so they limit Excel to what they can do, rather than what Excel can do. They then think they need to move onto custom software, when a decent spreadsheet can still do what they need. Have a chat to a professional and let them know what you wish to achieve. Someone like Richard would be the first to acknowledge the limits of Excel (and in fact himself). He can then either let you know what can be done or refer you on for programmed software instead. Some functionality may not even be possible with software, but this ceiling would be higher than with a spreadsheet. If the functionality is your only concern, it is possibly better to start with a spreadsheet in mind, and then move up to software if advised by a spreadsheet specialist. If this is part of the concern, combined with other categories from this blog post, then it may just be the straw that breaks the spreadsheet’s back.
The other thing to consider is how a professionally made spreadsheet will compare to your current spreadsheet, likely built in-house, or acquired from somewhere else. There is a huge gap between a DIY spreadsheet and programmed software, and a professionally built spreadsheet could possibly fill some of that gap. Here is what Andrew had to say about this: Most businesses start out with simple home-made spreadsheets and then find they’re not quite as powerful or functional as they need them to be as the business scales and grows. This is natural and inevitable. The leap between a simple spreadsheet and a custom-built software app is enormous and out of the ordinary for most businesses (unless they have achieved monumental scale very quickly) and thus a custom-made spreadsheet by Richard that can cater for a growing business is definitely the next logical step. It seals a nice gap between basic sheet and complex software. It’s also a huge risk reduction method since the cost is often much more achievable for a custom spreadsheet than it is for a bespoke software app.
Richard added that sometimes getting a spreadsheet made properly can help you to define processes and better understand the flow of the data, which can help the software developer to know what is required if you do decide to get custom software developed.
You just knew this was coming. Programmed software (especially custom-built) will likely take much longer to do than a similar application in Excel. What could take days or weeks in Excel, could take months or years even in programming. So, if you compare a custom-made spreadsheet to a similar application as custom-made software, the spreadsheet will likely be far cheaper. You could get pre-programmed ‘modules’ which are put together to form a somewhat custom programmed solution, however, even that may be more costly than a spreadsheet built from scratch. As a rough guideline, Richard has found that a spreadsheet (if only one spreadsheet and not a series of them) is unlikely to cost more than £2500. Any more than that, and it probably shouldn’t be as a spreadsheet. Whereas Andrew would likely not be able to provide a custom solution for less than that, and if he could, it would be a simple solution. Such a solution would likely still cost much less as a spreadsheet. If you have a budget of 3 figures or a low 4 figure amount, you will likely need to go with the spreadsheet option. You may have to compromise and find a balance between cost and functionality, but that would be your best bet. If you want to start looking at custom software solutions, you’d need to have at least 4 figures available. Also, if it is truly custom-made, you also need to take the time into consideration. Spreadsheets are far quicker to make than programmed software if you’re starting from scratch.
Many businesses go for spreadsheets because that’s what they do. Others go for software, because spreadsheets have been badmouthed (usually by software salespeople). It’s best to listen to those truly in the know, and to hear both sides about what you are trying to achieve. This doesn’t just come down to the application itself but taking your whole process into consideration. There are also other options, like off the shelf software, ready-made spreadsheets, spreadsheets with macros, and adaptable existing software, to name a few. And yes, if you ask a spreadsheet specialist and a software salesperson, you may well get contrasting views. That’s why Richard and Andrew teamed up to give you the most balanced view possible. Neither of us have any interest in making applications that should be done in the other way. Richard doesn’t want to make spreadsheets that are too complex and should be done as software, and Andrew doesn’t want to be making simple applications that could be done in Excel, as he won’t add enough value to justify it. So, if you are considering an application, and you don’t know if it should be done as a spreadsheet or custom software, get in touch with either of these guys and ask. They will both endeavour to guide you to the correct option, even if that correct choice is not the one which they provide.
Although many may see Richard and Andrew as competitors, they really are not. Yes, there might be a small percentage of people who go with software who could have used a spreadsheet, but it really is a small percentage. Most who progress from DIY spreadsheets should move to professionally made spreadsheets before custom-made software, unless advised (by a spreadsheet creator) that a spreadsheet is not the answer. Usually the budget, if nothing else’ will dictate that a spreadsheet is needed. If or when you outgrow a professional spreadsheet, and Richard can no longer help you, then it might well be time to get hold of Andrew.