What is custom software?

Custom software is a computer program tailored to your specific needs. At 7MCS, we also tailor the integration process to your needs, to minimize the impact of changes on your current business flow. We might start by automating a few of your current spreadsheets (don't worry, they can even look the same), then move toward reducing data entry tasks and redundant steps, improve the data integrity and so on. Sure, we'll be working to a plan, but the plan can be modified as needed, and it doesn't have to all happen at once. The program will have your business' logo and terminology, and can be changed to suite your needs as your business changes. Since it was created for your business, you don't have to purchase licenses for each machine or pay for monthly maintenance contracts. We have some customers using our software for many years without spending an additional penny. You pay only for updates and modifications you request. Custom software is like having a house custom built to your needs, where as ready-made software is like purchasing a modular home; cheaper, built for the 'Average' person, and it is not meant to be modified. Even worse, it comes in the mail with no help in hooking it up and tech support barely speaks english. But it IS cheaper, maybe...



Would I be better off buying ready-made (or "shrink-wrapped") software?

Do you know exactly what you need, now and in the future? Do you mind the chaos associated with switching your whole business over to a new way of doing things all at once? Are your software needs pretty standard, and similar to at least a few thousand other companies (like basic payroll)? If so, you way want to consider a 'ready-made' program. See How do I find if there is a ready-made program that will meet my needs? If, however this doesn't sound like the way you want to go, custom software may be the long term best solution for you.


How do I find if there is a ready-made program that will meet

A good software program with a solid reputation should not be hard to find; it should find you. If you have been searching the internet trying to find something that meets your needs, but are having no luck, don't waste your time. You wouldn't wan't to run your business on a bad program or even a good one with little or no support behind it. A good program with a solid company behind it will either be well known in your industry or you'll at least see plenty of advertisements for it. Here are some things to consider in your search:
Write down what you need; now and for the future. Divide the list into "Must have...", "Should have..." and "Would be nice if it had..."

    • Is the program meant for your type of business? If it isn't, you will likely run into problems sooner or later.

    • Is the program "right-sized" or larger/smaller than you need?

    • Can you easily export your data into standard formats (like comma delimited [.csv], MS Access, MS Excel, etc.)? The most valuable part of a computer is the data you put into it (customer records etc.). Software companies often try to hold your data hostage by not allowing you to export it to common file formats. This is to keep you from switching to or even utilizing another program. In order to get you to use their program, they often allow importing of many different formats, but getting the data back out can be another story. Make sure you can move your data files to another program if you should ever need to.

    • Can you create custom reports to answer unusual questions you might have in the future? If a client or boss asks for an answer, they don't care how you get it, and re-typing data in a spreadsheet is no fun.

    • Who will stand behind the software? Try asking a few questions before purchasing it and see how promptly they respond. As a potential customer, you are probably seeing their best side; after-sale support may not be quite as prompt. As your future questions get more complex, you might require their more technical "second tier" support, which most companies charge a premium for, if they even offer it.

    • Do you have to pay a recurring maintenance fee for support you may or may not need?

    • If you need a custom feature added, will they do it? How long will it take? How much will it cost? Will they charge you to reinstall the change in each future revision of the program? Get this in writing. Many sales people promise anything to get you to buy, but can't deliver it later.

    • No time to do all of this? See "Initial Time Investment" in the
    next question.

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What are the advantages of custom software over ready-made programs?

    Service: 7MCS provides a service. We don't just write software, but help streamline your information flow. Our business is keeping our customers happy by helping them with their information needs, not selling them something we make a gazillion of, and then forgetting about them. Most of our business comes from continued relationships with happy clients.
    Right-sized: Do you plan to grow, but you are not there just yet? Do you only need 10% of that $20,000 program? Custom software is just what you need, when you need it.
    Initial time investment: Your time is worth something. If you are not sure how to proceed with this project, and don't have the time to figure out all of the steps, let us put our years of experience to work for you. At the start of most projects, we consult with you on defining the needs and designing a solution plan. A good house needs a good foundation.
    R.O.I.: Return on investment is an important consideration, but often overlooked when comparing a $10,000 custom program to a $500 ready-made program. In most industries, anything that can pay for itself in 1 year and continue to generate profit thereafter is usually considered a good investment. If your staff is overloaded and you are considering hiring an extra employee, weigh the cost of that extra person against the cost of a custom program that can be tailored to reduce the workload. If you know of other businesses that need what you do, you can also arrange to split the development cost with them.
    Taxes: Though usually a minor consideration, there currently is no sales tax on software services in Pennsylvania. At the federal level, a service (like custom software) is usually expensable where as a software product must be depreciated. Ask your accountant for details.

    Competitive edge: Your competitors can buy the same ready-made software you can. If you think your way of doing business is better than theirs, software created to the way YOU work can give you an edge. Maybe it is more personalized service, better tracking, customized orders or invoices, or anything that gives you that edge over your competition, a custom program is the only way to assure that your software tool stays yours alone, and stays working as you want it to.

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How do I decide who to have develop my software

With today's software tools, most anyone CAN write a program, or set up a database, spreadsheet or web site, but not everyone has the background and experience to create something you should trust the operation of your business to. What the books and seminars don't teach is the underlying principles of good software design and ergonomics (making the software easy to use). Most universities have a 4 year degree program called Computer Science, which teaches these underlying principles. Even with the computer science background and knowledge of the development tool (like Microsoft Access, Macromedia Flash etc.) it is important that your software developer have the communication skills and business sense necessary to deliver what you want in a timely fashion, and to take care of you needs in the future. For projects costing under $20,000, you are usually dealing with an individual who may or may not be part of a company offering a variety of services. In this case, your search for a developer becomes more like an interview. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

    • How well do they understand computers, software, databases and businesses like yours?

    • Are they a full-time developer, or doing it on the side? This will tell if your project will be a priority for them or if you will have to constantly remind them of your existence. This may also be an issue if you need help when they are at or traveling for their day job.

    • How many jobs have they successfully completed? Starting is easy; wrapping up the details is another matter.

    • How long have they been in business full-time (and how long will they be)? Most programmers who go out on their own are between jobs "giving it a try". Within a year or two, they may be out of town or not interested in your project any more. Don't assume that someone else can just pick up where they left off. At best the new person will spend extra time figuring things out; at worst, you may not find someone who wants to support what the other person created (especially if it was poorly done).

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What about hardware?
Computers are getting very specialized these days. While we understand many aspects of computer hardware (and have even built a few from scratch), we usually leave the hardware work to people who keep current on the latest in networking, server configurations etc. We certainly can make recommendations on the basic configuration, auto ID ...equipment, barcode scanners, touch screens etc., and even guide you if you want to set up your own small networks. If your needs are larger, we can recommend people we have worked with before, or you can find your own. We prefer to stick to doing one thing very well, and not pretend to be the best at everything.

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We have a secretary who knows MS Access, why do we need 7MCS?
If one of your employees knows the basics of MS Access, they may be able to work with us on the project; setting up reports tables etc. At very least, you may want 7MCS give you an assessment of the database they create before you put it into use. Knowing how to use Access is quite different from being able to develop a reliable custom program using Access (see " How do I decide who to have develop my software? ")

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Why is "support" important if the program is working ok?
Theoretically, a program that works well should keep working well if nothing else changes. So why does Microsoft spend so much on support and always have those "service releases" even on mature products? Software is very complex, and it is very hard to test every facet of it. Additionally, problems can also be caused by installing some other program or update, changing an operating system, hardware changes and many other things that nobody can foresee. If the person who wrote your custom program is no longer available to help you, you might not be able to get the problem fixed, or a new feature added. As well, it is not always cheap or easy to find somebody willing to pick up where someone else left off. We have been in business far longer than most custom developers, so there is a very good chance we'll be there when you need us. We have been taking care of many of our clients for over 10 years now, supplying modifications, new reports, updates or whatever else they may need. Since we don't require a maintenance contract, we don't cost you anything until you need us.

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I'm ready to get started, how do we move forward?
Every situation is different, but in the last 16 years, I would say the majority of our projects go like this:

  1. First you have to be comfortable with our ability to help you. This sometimes requires a face-to-face meeting, sometimes just a phone call. When you decide we are the ones to help you, we establish a retainer amount both of us are comfortable with. Once the retainer is received, we can talk freely about how best to meet your needs. We do things this way because what we provide is a service, not a product, and determination of the best solution is part of that service. In the first meeting, we may discuss your needs for hours and determine that the best solution is something you don't even need us for. If we only make money by doing programming work for you, we might be tempted to recommend a big custom database, even if it is not what you really need.
  2. Most everyone would like an idea of how much the project is going to cost. See "How much is this going to cost" The answer depends greatly on how well you can define what you need. We are a service business, so it is usually better to think of us as a temporary employee helping you solve a problem, rather than a company selling you a packaged solution.
  3. Most of the time, a deposit is needed before we start the project. This is determined on a case-by-case basis.
  4. Next, we can start to discuss specifics of your project and begin formulating a plan.
  5. From this point on, there is a steady volley of us sending you either documents or actual software to look at and comment on, and you returning your comments and answers to questions. This "volley" hopefully prevents any major miscommunications, or at least exposes them before they get too far down the road.
  6. When the program is essentially ready to use, it is best to put it through a "beta test" where you start running sample data through it and checking the reports and other outputs.
  7. After you are satisfied that the program is ready for use, we enter a "live" stage, where modifications are carefully coordinated so as not to upset your business functions.
  8. We carefully design our software so that even after you are using it actively, features can still be added as you need them. One reason we use MS Access for development, is that updates to the program can easily be attached to an email, even if you are on a dial-up connection. Making changes to software that is in active use is tricky business; if done wrong it can bring your business operations to a screeching halt. Through many years of modifying software that is actively running multi million-dollar paper and steel mills, we have learned how to make these changes in a timely and safe fashion.
  9. Invoices are sent periodically throughout the project as work progresses. Prompt payment assures uninterrupted work flow.

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How much is this going to cost?
This very important question needs a worthy answer, so I'll break it apart a bit:

    A service vs. a product: A ready-made program may cost less on paper, but may take more time to research, learn, and adapt to. We try to design software to the way you already work, so there is little, if any, disruption to your work flow.

    "Typical" sized projects:

      Find out the cost of hiring a person full-time to do the job you want us to perform (annual salary would be a minimum of $60K plus benefits). Next, figure out what it would cost to keep them available for support and updates after the project is done (if they would be willing to agree to such – likely they will program in 'job security'). Remember, if they get bored and go work for someone else, you have lost them. Do you know that you can implement the changes they produce as fast as they produce them, or will they be waiting around because you can't put new software on-line during your month-end crunch? Now, keep this cost in mind when we start discussing the cost of 7mcs doing the project for you.


      Modifications and repairs to an existing database are the hardest to predict. A well-designed database should be fairly simple to figure out, and may take only a few hours to modify. A larger request with a poorly-designed database could cost as much as starting from scratch.
      Simple databases with plain forms and reports can average $2,000 to $5,000.

      Complex databases with automated features, unattended operation, interfaces to other programs etc. can range from $5,000 to $20,000 or more depending on what is desired.
      The largest factors influencing the cost are:

        • the amount of work you expect the database to do automatically (automation)

        • interfaces to other software (like outputting data to Excel, Quickbooks, email programs etc.)

        • how "picky" you tend to be about colors, wording, report layouts etc.

        • how well you can communicate what you want

    We let you help control the cost: Much of the cost of a project is in the design, operator interface and support. These are areas where you play a large part in the process. If your priority is to have a powerful, easy to use, bullet-proof product, that's our specialty. If you have a budget figure to meet, we can recommend design options to reduce the cost, or even find ways that people in your company can do some of the work. With our low overhead, streamlined methods and experience, it is highly unlikely you will find a comparable solution with long-term support for a lower total cost.

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How long will it take?

We take deadlines seriously, so if you need it in 3 weeks, we will either tell you up-front that we can't do it, or you'll have it in 3 weeks. We maintain a "resource reserve" to handle time-critical jobs. This is part of our customer support philosophy that comes from taking care of large manufacturing lines that absolutely cannot be "down". If you need a special report for an auditor that is coming tomorrow, you'll be glad to hear that we aren't booked solid for the next two weeks.

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Where or what is Seven Mountains?

There is an area of central Pennsylvania, and another in Bergen Norway known as "Seven Mountains." A Google search will also bring up some biblical references, but the "Seven Mountains" we are associated with are those found in the Allegheny range of central Pennsylvania. The panoramic picture at the top of this site was taken about 5 miles from from our office, and is where most locals agree the center of the region is. Nobody knows exactly which of the many ridges in the area are the 7 that make up Seven Mountains, as a matter of fact, some even speculate the name came from the seven mile long road that used to cross the mountains from Milroy to Potters Mills (the new highway is only 6 miles). All that is known for sure is that most of the official signs that say "Seven Mountains" are located within a couple of miles of where I took the above picture.

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