Based in Vancouver, 1-800-GOT-JUNK? LLC (“Junk”), a waste removal company, built its Internet-based scheduling and dispatch system from scratch. The firm has spent countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past six years on code development and testing to make this homegrown platform, dubbed Junknet, into an e-commerce hub, a back-end accounting system and a communication nexus for its franchisees operating across Canada and the U.S.

But for all of the time and cash thrown into Junknet, the company claims it has actually saved money by building the system instead of buying it from a software vendor. “We’d be into the millions of dollars for what we built in-house,” says Cameron Herold, Junk’s vice-president of operations. He adds that Junknet took $300,000 to build.

Herold also says Junknet is saving his company a lot of operating costs. The system’s electronic dispatch arm, for instance, gives franchisees access to customer information, job-site details and schedules via WAP-enabled mobile phones. This wireless Web-based access feature means Junk doesn’t have to spend money on long-distance phone calls to franchisees when jobs change; that spells a $10,000 reduction.

Meanwhile the new online customer interface, which lets clients book jobs on the Net, means Junk saves even more money. “The cost of booking a job at our call centre is about $6.50,” Herold says. “For us to now book a job online is about…4.5 cents.”

Junknet puts the waste removal company at the front of the high-tech adoption curve, Herold says. “This is Sanford and Son taken to the Jetsons.” But that’s not to say Junk has its head somewhere above the clouds. If anything, it aims to remain as grounded as possible when it comes to IT endeavours.

Herold says Junk often polls Junknet’s users, the franchisees, to see if new features impress them, and to see what they want the system to provide.

“Our biggest hurdle is getting the users’ requirements, so we build something that they want,” Herold says, pointing out that sometimes Junk’s experienced developers come up with neat new features that may or may not be what users need. “It’s what we battle with every day.”

Accommodating the special needs of users is just one reason why companies continue to develop their own applications. Some IT shops are bucking the trend toward off-the-shelf applications and are opting to use custom-developed systems in the following situations:

• A package falls short in one or two crucial respects and is bloated with unneeded features.

• Companies can develop their own systems more cheaply, especially when they have deep subject-matter expertise.

• An application is of strategic importance, and the company wants to control every aspect of it.

• The vendor is too slow or is unwilling to adapt its package to changing user needs.

• The package doesn’t integrate well with existing systems or with the company’s IT infrastructure.

• Support and maintenance costs are high. Some of these points apply to Junk. The company didn’t have the money to purchase the necessary software to create Junknet back in 1998, when the project began. As well, Junk wanted a unique system, something that addressed its need specifically, rather than an off-the-shelf solution; control was important, Herold says. IT executives generally say it makes little sense to develop your own commodity or utility system, such as payroll or general ledger. But one company’s utility can be another’s strategic asset.

Choice Homes Inc., a US$750 million house-builder in Arlington, Tex., chose to develop its own suite of accounting systems — general ledger, accounts payable and accounts receivable — even though many mature commercial choices are available. It was the only way to get the extremely flexible reporting necessary to satisfy the needs of autonomous, remote construction managers, says CIO Andrew Brimberry.

“I actually believe that our general ledger does give us a competitive advantage, because we can close our books at the end of the month in two days and at the end of the year in four days,” Brimberry says. “So we know very quickly what money we are making and where we need to adapt.”

Herold from Junk says it’s important to think ahead when developing in-house. “You have to build something that’s going to take you out further than you’re maybe thinking. We’re thinking three years out all the time.” That accounts for build time, which is essential, “especially if your business is growing as fast as ours is. We’re in our fifth consecutive year of 100 per cent growth. For us to build something that is actually current, let alone something that is going to stay ahead of the curve, we have to be thinking far ahead.”

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