Even with thousands and thousands of computer software programs on the market, Joe Dillon couldn't find one to fit his Irvine, Calif.-based personal fitness consulting business.
What he needed was a way to create detailed, customized nutrition and fitness programs for his clients across the country.
"When I started looking around for something, there was really nothing that was user-friendly," said Mr. Dillon, whose clients pay about $2,500 for 12 sessions. A key element of his business is providing each client with a 60- to 75-page report explaining exactly what to eat and do to get into shape.
Mr. Dillon finally hired Custom Software Inc. in Irvine to create a program for his IBM personal computer.
While most businesses don't need custom software, finding the right off-the-shelf software is tough. Just walking through the software department of any computer or office supply store can intimidate the most computer-literate entrepreneur.
Before spending a dollar on any software program, figure out what you need your computer to do for your business. Do you need to create a mailing list? Send invoices? Track inventory?
How do you begin looking for the right program? There are all kinds of trade publications, including Home Office Computing, which is geared to small-business owners. Computer consultants also rely on "Data Sources," published by Ziff-Davis in New York City. This book, which costs $595, lists thousands of software programs on the market.
Ivan Rosenberg, a Culver City, Calif., computer expert, nTC recommends choosing a software program to fit your needs for about five years. Why so long? Because the cost of retraining employees and converting data to a new program is high.
If five years seems like a long time, remember that most popular software programs are upgraded and improved continually, so you will continue to benefit from the changes.
Once you've listed the tasks you need accomplished and think you know which program to buy, consider hiring a computer consultant to help you make the right decision. Consultants charge $40 to $150 an hour, depending on their level of experience and location. The best ones sell knowledge, not products.
Before buying hardware or software, ask your employees what they expect the computer system to do for them. If you don't include your employees in the decision-making process and consider their opinions, you are asking for trouble.
No matter how technically perfect a software program is, Mr. Rosenberg said, "the bottom line is, people will either make it work or not make it work."
If you can't find the right software on the shelf, you may have to hire someone to create a customized program. While many popular business programs sell for less than $100, prepare to spend $5,000 to $20,000 or more for custom software. Be sure to ask the programmer for a copy of the source code used to write your software. Without it, no one will ever be able to change or update the program.
"We always recommend a package if we can find one," said Sigmund Fidyke III, founder of Custom Software. "Once, we started to develop a custom system for an attorney who needed to track court cases, but found one on the market for $1,200 and stopped our work."
Although there are all kinds of programs out there, Mr. Fidyke said, "you can't walk into Egghead [Discount Software] and say, 'I need a program that tracks kidney patients.' " Mr. Fidyke's team created such a program.
His 14-person firm also developed software to fit in a tiny computer in a device that measures the thickness of steel in steel mills.
Although software developers can create miraculous programs, they can't do the impossible.
"We can't put your brain into a computer," Mr. Fidyke said.
(For a free copy of Jane Applegate's Small Business Owner's Resource Guide, send a 29-cent-stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Jane Applegate, P.O. Box 637, Sun Valley, Calif. 91353-0637.)