Build a Guitar, or Be a Rockstar?

Brandon Metcalf   September 11, 2017  

Imagine that you have decided to learn the guitar. At your first lesson, you think the teacher will show you how to strum the instrument and play a song. Instead, she says, “You’re going to learn the first step in building a guitar. Did you bring an axe? We need to chop down a tree.”

“Wait, what? I thought you were going to teach me guitar?”

“I am, but you have to build the guitar first. In two years, once you build a mediocre-enough guitar, we’ll start playing songs. It will cost at least $100,000 to build. Or maybe ten times that amount. Who knows!”

“Uh, why don’t I just buy one?”

We look at the exchange and think, well, duh. Why would you spend two years and six figures building an average guitar when you could, for a fraction of the time and cost, buy a good one now and start playing?

In business, leaders often suspend that logic and do the opposite. Buy? Psh. We’ll build our own!

Two years later, they’ve built a product inferior to the one they could have bought. They’ve wasted years and money while they could have been rocking on stage (getting clients, placing candidates, etc.). $800,000, by the way, is a conservative minimum estimate for the cost of building a high-functioning, enterprise application. There’s no upper limit on what a company might spend.  

Then why do companies routinely build software rather than buy it? 

Because buying comprehensive software – the kind that runs an entire business – is a relatively new and scary thing.

Until recently, out-of-the-box software couldn’t capture the strategies and processes that give businesses a competitive edge. Leaders concluded that the only way to preserve their company’s secret sauce was to build software from scratch. Moreover, many believed that pre-built software would require so many painful integrations that it would be easier to build from scratch. As a bonus, their homemade software could become valuable intellectual property. But, the developers may as well have been scratching code on ancient tablets – the resulting systems were brittle, inflexible, and obsolete by the time the clay dried.

Today, building is even more seductive. Just using drag-and-drop tools, you can customize entire websites and sophisticated platforms like Salesforce. But that doesn’t make you a website designer or user experience expert. The ease lures us into forgetting the complexity and subtlety of designing products.

You could look at my guitar analogy and say, ok, don’t famous guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Carlos Santana have personal guitars built? Yes, but do you think they customize more than 20 percent of guitar technology?

I doubt it. If you change more than 80 percent of guitar ‘DNA,’ it’s probably a different instrument. Van Halen and Santana trust the guitar maker to craft an instrument that plays beautifully. The maker probably loves and practices guitar to design an instrument so exceptional that it elevates the talent of a rock star. The guitar maker builds the instrument well because he knows what it’s like to be the musician.

In other words, a great reason to buy rather than build software is the empathy of the maker.

At Talent Rover, my colleagues and I worked in the recruitment industry for decades before choosing to build our own platform. Based on our experiences, we imagined ways to make life better for our peers.     

Now, that empathy fuels at least 80 percent of a product like Talent Rover. The other 20 percent is the customer’s secret sauce, the customizations.

Let me share some examples of how empathy can appear in software. As recruiters, when we used to schedule interviews between clients and candidates, we’d draft emails to each party. The client would want a resume, personality points, and other attributes. The candidate would want information about the company, the boss, career opportunities, and so on. With Talent Rover, we thought why not have the system preload all that information into emails so the recruiters could deliver it with one click? Why not eliminate steps that were tedious and time-consuming for us?

Another good example is updating contact information. The people you’ve placed often become your best clients in the future. But it’s hard to focus on contacting old contacts when you’re busy placing new people. So, we thought, why not have our platform send automated emails that invite them to update their information without logging into a system? That way, if they are interested in a career change or need assistance with hiring, they’ll signal that to the firm.

While visiting a client onsite, we used to write notes on the job orders and manually enter them into a database when we returned to the office. The race to place a candidate had begun, but we couldn’t do anything before entering the data. Now, salespeople enter job orders into Talent Rover’s mobile app during the onsite visit, and their recruiting team can send some candidates before the meeting is over. That demonstrates how quickly the firm moves and tests if the salesperson understood the client’s needs.   

Essentially, we designed Talent Rover to do things we wished software could do when we worked on the desk. Only veteran recruiters could make that wish list. Empathy makes Talent Rover what it is today.

So, here’s the new calculus of build versus buy. If you can find a product that has 80 percent of what you need and requires 20 percent (or less) customization, buy it. If no product can meet 80 percent of your needs out of the box, you might need a product that doesn’t exist yet.

Again, why build the guitar if your objective is to play music?

I went through that 80-20 decision. Kent Gray and I launched Talent Rover because no staffing and recruitment solution came close to meeting 80 percent of our needs. We went through countless iterations and millions of dollars to get Talent Rover to its current state. We absorbed the pain of building a guitar so that our customers don’t have to.

Some companies say they’ll customize your entire platform, as if that were a good thing. What they’re saying is, “Here are the strings for a guitar. You can tell us how to build the rest.”

That’s draining and risky unless you know what you’re building and why. While you’re reinventing the guitar, your competitors will be on stage playing one.

Build a guitar, or be a rock star.