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Product Managers: Should You Build or Should You Buy?

One of the eternal questions for any product owner is whether it’s better to build the solution that they need or to buy something that already works. It’s a question that we see here at FullContact pretty often. Here’s what we’ve found to be the most pressing choices for anyone facing the same question.

Should You Build It?

The argument for building a feature almost always comes down to having very specific requirements that need to be met. We’ve had many calls with developers who have incredibly specific needs that they simply can’t buy. For instance, if you want to be able to make phone calls from your app, you need those phone calls to be recorded, transcribed and then stored in a cloud service. It’s perhaps best to build that tool yourself. This type of deep, highly-specific feature is something that would require a number of different API integrations to work seamlessly.

Product Managers: Should You Build APIs or Should You Buy APIs?

The other story that we often hear is one of reliability. As a product owner, you don’t like surprises. You need to know that you can rely on the parts that you’ve gathered in order to make your service successful. Your definition of a really bad day probably includes waking up to a “deprecated feature” email for a feature from an API that you’re using. If this sort of absolute control is imperative, then there’s simply no question remaining. You have to build the features that you want.

Should You Buy It?

Buying access to a feature is always going have a certain amount of risk involved. Incomplete documentation, a lack of support from the provider, insufficient warning of changes, and many more factors are all potential realities of playing in someone else’s sandbox.

But they don’t have to be.

The open Internet and the world of APIs have been a driving force in getting us where we are today. Even non-technical consumers are interweaving APIs through services like Zapier. Building any tool for the modern Internet will almost always have some feature that is bought rather than built. It’s just easier.

Buying services has its own set of concerns, though they’re not unlike the questions that must be answered by those who would build instead.

  • Affordability: Do you have the money and developer resources to build what you need? If not, in almost every instance, buying access to a feature will have lower upfront cost than building it yourself.
  • Sustainability: Does your development team have the bandwidth to keep fixing the feature you built when it breaks? If not, subscribing to a service might make more sense.
  • Reliability: This ties in with the sustainability factor, but it’s more about having someone else do the heavy lifting of up time. These are the tools that you’re using. You need to make sure that they’re always available.

For most teams these days, buying instead of building comes down to lowering the barriers to entry in order to get what they need. Spending less money, not having to hire specialty staff and never worrying about being the one to fix a problem are all valuable benefits to buying access versus building it.

Product Managers: Should You Build APIs or Should You Buy APIs?

So what should you look for when buying access to a product? What we’ve heard as the determining factors can be distilled down to three things:

  • Great documentation: You’re looking to make this integration easy. The documentation should help, not hinder, that effort.
  • Reliable uptime: When you’re building using someone else’s tools, you need to make sure that they won’t disappear.
  • Impeccable communication: If changes are coming, you’ll want to know about them well in advance in order to be prepared.

Obviously, as providers of the FullContact API, we’re a little biased. We see lots of benefits to buying over building. But the truth is, every company and product is different. You need to do what’s right for yours. If specifics are an issue, and you have the money to support the required team, you might want to build. But if saving upfront cash and development time are the primary drivers, you can have a lot of success working in the world of APIs.

There are new services, APIs, applications and options available every day. This fact is part of what makes today’s Internet great. As is true with every choice, knowing your needs can help you make an informed decision.

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