Benefits of Custom vs COTS Software

Business in the modern world runs on a drastically different landscape than it did fifty, or even twenty years ago. Sure, our working memory may no be what it used to be, but we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. That is because for decades humanity has come to rely more and more on computers to get things done. And that is a good thing, there is too much that goes into running a business for an owner to have to address every single aspect; every task you can delegate to an automated system frees up more time to focus on important decisions. But not all business software is created equal. Here, we would like to go over the benefits of custom versus commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) business software.

Get All Your “Must-Haves”

A key guideline to buying COTS software is that it should have at least 80 percent of the features that you are looking for. 80 percent may qualify as “most”, but that shouldn’t be good enough in a business setting. That is work your employees are going to have to pick up. When you get custom business software, you buy only the features you want (without having to sign onto superfluous packages and pay for unneeded features), not only giving you the best bang for your buck, but also ensuring your business has everything it needs to run smoothly.

Customizable

Many COTS systems are billed as customizable, but the actual level of control you are given will vary widely from product to product. Oftentimes, when you consider the extra effort or cost that goes into customizing a COTS solution, you will find that it would have been more cost effective to just get custom software, which by definition is made exactly to your needs and specifications.

Similar Overall Expenses

Custom software solutions have a general perception of being more expensive, but this is only the case for upfront cost. Once you factor in things like licenses, ongoing expenses, and upgrade downtime, the costs tend to even out. The only difference being one is a fully customized software solution tailored to your individual business, while the other is a pre packaged one size fits all deal.

Scalability

One of the biggest mistakes growing businesses tend to make is committing to business software that cannot handle their rate of growth. When you order a custom software solution, your programmers are going to be considering plans for expansion in their features. With the ability to plan for any amount of scaling, custom business software solutions keep businesses from getting hamstrung during high growth periods.

 

Here at Alchemy Group, we create custom Filemaker software solutions tailored businesses all over the country. Would you like to take advantage of our product? If you are interested in how our database software solutions can help your business increase efficiency and profitability, please do not hesitate to give us a call today. One of our friendly and knowledgeable representatives will be happy to provide answers to any questions that you may have.

budgeting for custom software

Be a Visionary: Budget for Custom Software

In 1989, I had been working for a large metropolitan weekly newspaper for the better part of a decade. I was a jack of all trades when it came to the graphics department: graphics camera operator, paste-up artist, typesetter – all essential tasks when it came to putting together a paper for publication – until desktop publishing came along and turned the publishing industry on its ear.

When it was announced that everything was about to change for our entire team, I saw the writing on the wall. At that point, I was one of those rare geeks who had actually gone out and bought a personal computer: an IBM clone with not one, but two floppy drives. I had recently also added a 30-pound, 10MB hard drive (to the tune of $500!), and I was using the whole rig to write a novel.

I was state of the art.

Armed with this thorough knowledge of computing, I convinced the head of our department to let me take a shot at being the “Computer Guy.” I had no idea how Macs worked, which was the type of machine we brought in to replace everything else, but somehow I managed to hold on to that position, eventually managing a great number of Mac and Windows PCs throughout the entire facility. I learned on the job, and ended up with a great deal of responsibility.

Here’s one thing I learned: business leaders don’t like to spend money unless they have to. Not only that, but during that period of time, when desktop business technology was still a relatively new concept, there was not a lot of understanding of how such things worked, or exactly what their value was to the company. Every conversation regarding computer upgrades, software upgrades, or anything else involving technology purchases was a battle. Management just couldn’t get their heads around the idea that technology constantly changes; that in order to compete, a company needs to always look forward to new possibilities.

It’s been well over two decades since I left that newspaper and started Alchemy Consulting Group. In that time, I have watched a gradual shift in thinking as younger people have moved into leadership positions within all types of businesses. No longer is the prospect of a computer or networking expenditure greeted with suspicion. Instead, it’s just considered the cost of doing business, something to hand the accountant at the end of the year for depreciation purposes.

But there are still some things many of these young visionaries need to learn – like how to budget for software, and how to make software decisions in the first place. You see, business software is, by far, the most important factor when it comes to solving business problems and increasing productivity. Setting aside the fact that you can’t run software without a device on which to install it, it’s the software that your team relies on to get things done, day-to-day.

In building and installing countless custom software systems over the years, I have watched businesses struggle with the concept of an ongoing custom software budget. Not only do most small businesses have no idea what custom software costs, they have little tolerance for the idea that they should plan for investment in ongoing support and development. After all, if you have already invested in brand new software, why would you need to continue paying for it into the future?

Here’s the truth: custom software for your business gives you a huge competitive advantage. In essence, the company with the best software often wins, due to factors like increased speed, higher level of customer service, and lower error rate, to name just a few. But you have to leverage the “custom” part. Your business is constantly changing, little by little, every day. Each time you figure out a new way of doing things, make some sort of exception for a certain client, or simply decide to take a fresh look at your numbers, you’re drifting a little bit farther from your original business model.

Custom Filemaker business software can keep up, but only if you continue to invest to keep everything in top shape. We offer our clients support plans at a reduced rate to encourage this kind of thinking. Your investment then departs the realm of just “software,” and becomes a sort of living thing, a contributing member of the team.
ServTek Field Service App

Alchemy Webinar: Mobility for Field Service Teams

If you missed Alchemy Consulting President Bob Shockey’s 35-minute webinar, presented in conjunction with FileMaker, Inc. on August 8, 2017, you missed out on the opportunity to see how quickly a new custom field service app for your business pays for itself. But, you are in luck! You can view the webinar , aptly titled “Mobility for Field Service Teams,” right now. Bob shares Alchemy’s powerful ServTek Core office and mobile app, and demonstrates how easily field service teams can be linked to the office system to provide real time updates, share photos from the field, accept credit cards, and email invoices straight to the customer’s inbox.

Another great part of this presentation is that Bob explains just how extensible this app can be with custom additions for inventory, contract management, integration with Quickbooks and Docusign, marketing tools, and much more. He also describes how the custom software advantage makes it possible for your organization to gain a competitive advantage by providing better customer service, quicker and more in-depth answers, and raising the organization’s profile within your industry. If you have been wondering how to best gain that competitive advantage your organization needs to take things to the next level, there just might be something here you can use.

Bob also shares valuable information about the return on investment (ROI) businesses can enjoy by installing a mobile system like ServTek. He demonstrates that it is strikingly easy for businesses to recoup the cost of custom software, just in employee time savings alone. Just five minutes per hour saved, for each employee, can and will save your business thousands of dollars. Of course, most people save way more than five minutes per hour – it’s not uncommon for a laborious, half-day process to be reduced to a few minutes. In fact, the ROI on a FileMaker system from Alchemy’s Filemaker develoeprs can be downright astonishing. Want to see some actual numbers? Watch the webinar to learn more!

Technology and Business: A Love Story

Here at Alchemy Consulting Group, we provide software for business data organization using FileMaker to create a customized software solution. We love FileMaker for all its functionality and customization features. Our love of bringing technology and business together to maximize efficiency got us thinking about the very intense relationship between business and technology.  We are currently able to produce thousands of times what we used to be able to in agricultural communities, and that’s all because of the production increases technology affords us, whether that be in agriculture, medicine, communications, or any other field. Here, we’d like to go over a little bit of the history of how technology has changed the business world.

The Rise of Inventions

Some time around the 19th century the amount of patents being issued from the United States Patent Office began to rise markedly. While many of these inventions seem archaic or of not much use in today’s society, they allowed many businesses to make huge strides in productivity. Some of these inventions included railroad air brakes, barbed wire, the camera, the typewriter, and much more. These inventions pervaded just about every industry, creating a trend where companies who relied on the latest, most efficient technology got ahead.

Communication and Electricity

Industry requires energy, and before electricity all that energy had to come directly from sources like coal or water. For something like light, which previously required some kind of slow burning material and combustion, you can imagine how costly these fuel sources were to industry. In comes Thomas Edison with his incandescent light bulb, and suddenly lighting is many times cheaper for industries across the nation. By the late 19th century, electric utilities were widespread enough that they became viable for residential neighborhoods.

The beginning of the communication boom can be attributed to Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone. Just think about the lost revenue a business would have if they had to send a rider out for each and every message that they needed sent. In fact, current production levels wouldn’t even be possible with the communication level of businesses pre-telephone.

Current Developments

If the additional inter-connectivity provided by the telephone caused industries to boom worldwide, you can only imagine the economic explosion caused by the internet. Nowadays, having a smart phone is more of a necessity in the working world than a luxury, if that gives you an idea as to the Internet’s importance. The internet can connect people around the world virtually instantaneously, and at a much cheaper cost than even the telephone can provide. On top of the internet, the sheer computing power of technology today has so far outmatched what the human brain is capable of on its own, that businesses who don’t make use of it quickly fall behind the competition.

One of the biggest areas where computing power helps businesses is data aggregation, organization, and management. One of the biggest problems businesses run into is scalability. Running a business of 10 people is very different from running a business with a thousand people, and that’s across all industries. Some industries scale better than others. When it comes to lost revenue due to inefficient communication of important data, that money can really add up fast as businesses get bigger and bigger.

 

Here at Alchemy Consulting Group, we provide software for business data organizations using  FileMaker 15 and above. If you are looking to trim the fat off your business by cutting unnecessary costs and increasing efficiency, then we can provide the custom software solution to help you do that. If you have any questions about our business or service, please don’t hesitate to give one of our knowledgeable representatives a call today; they’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Filemaker: An Overview

In today’s world, if you ignore advances in technology there is a good chance that your business could get left in the dust. NASA may still use old computing technology, but the day to day stuff (GPS tracking, swiping your credit card, daily planning apps) usually relies on new or perfected technology. The day to day for businesses is no different, and if you aren’t making use of the best data organization technologies, you could be losing potential savings. Here at Alchemy Consulting Group, we create software for business using FileMaker, which we believe to be one of the most effective data organization tools available. If you are unfamiliar with this platform, we go over what FileMaker is, and its history, here.

History

Originally developed for Macintosh systems as a personal database application, FileMaker was created by Apple’s Claris Corporation. Since its inception, it has moved to also incorporate the Windows market as well, now being a cross platform tool. Before FileMaker 7, there was a brief attempt to run on Linux, but that was abandoned.

When it began, FileMaker was an MS-DOS program called Nutshell. It was made by Nashoba Systems in Concord, Massachusetts, and marketed by a company called Leading Edge. It made use of the new advances Macintosh offered, along with a then new graphical user interface (or GUI). At first, this new version wasn’t accepted by industry leaders, that is until Nashoba partnered with Forethought Inc., when the program was reintroduced as the FileMaker that we all can identify today.

Eventually Forethought was purchased and owned by Microsoft when they were introducing PowerPoint. While Microsoft had their own database application, it failed to perform as well as FileMaker so they stopped pushing it. They tried to get the rights to publish FileMaker, but Nashoba retained them and created the next version of the program.

Eventually, Apple formed a subsidiary called Claris, which purchased Nashoba. FileMaker was continuing to succeed at this point where other database applications failed, and has kept up that success to this very day. FileMaker is still Claris’ most successful product, and Apple shifted focus to it, renaming the company FileMaker, Inc. to focus more exclusively on the product. There have been many FileMaker updates over the years, with it currently on version 16. Some notable new features include mobile compatibility with FileMaker Go, PDF creation, modern OS compatibility, integrated themes, faster WAN, free universal client for bar code scanning, FileMaker Cloud, state-of-the-art Web integration, and much more.

FileMaker is used world wide, with many languages available, including Chinese, English, Dutch, French Italian, Japanese, German, and more.

 

Here at Alchemy Consulting Group, we help create software for businesses using FileMaker 13 through FileMaker 16. With years of experience in the field, we can create a database tailored to your business’ specific needs. Most of the time, these apps pay for themselves in a matter of months. When it comes to being successful in business, efficiency is key, and FileMaker database solutions are a great way to maximize efficiency. If you have any questions about our service, please don’t hesitate to give one of our friendly representatives a call today.

 

Tips For Choosing The Best Software Development Company

Nowadays, running a successful business without taking advantage of the latest technological trends is almost impossible. It’s just too easy for your competition to corner the market with all the added efficiency and productivity that modern business software solutions allow for. Luckily, there’s no reason for you to put the burden of software development on yourself when there are so many knowledgeable professionals out there that can do it for you.

However, when choosing a business app development company, it’s important to vet your options to make sure you’re getting the best service possible. With so many of your business’ internal processes riding on this service, you want to ensure that you’re getting the most qualified, knowledgeable custom app development available. Here are some tips to help you in this decision:

Timetable

First thing is first, you want to make sure that your custom app development can be completed within a time frame that works for your business. Make sure to discuss this with each prospective app development company, and veto any that can’t work with your deadlines. While only hindsight can tell you for sure if they will follow through in time, the following tips help you evaluate the business further.

Ask For Credentials

Business software development requires a certain set of skills. The quality of your business application will likely be a reflection of how honed the skills of the people you hire are. Look for accredited qualifications, usually listed on their business site. Here at Alchemy Consulting Group, LLC, we are a Filemaker Business Alliance Platinum Member. Our president, Bob Shockey, also serves on the Advisory Board for Filemaker Developers in Southern California. We currently hold certifications for every version of Filemaker from 7 through 15.

Ask For References/Samples

When determining which business application development company is best for you, one great resource is previous customers. Ask for testimonials and examples of previous work, as that can often give you an indication of the level of detail of work that you can expect.

Learn Who Is Working On Your Software Development

Personally meeting the developer working on your business software is one of the best ways to determine the work you will be getting. Many companies outsource development to save costs, which is great if they pass it on to you, but can be harmful when the work isn’t up to standard. Make sure to ask to speak with the developer who will be working with you, and establish a connection to make getting updates easier.

Maintenance And Tech Support

Your business software will not do you any good if you don’t know how to use it, or is full of bugs you don’t know how to fix. Make sure your business software development company offers some kind of maintenance and tech support service after their software has been implemented.

Implementing state of the art business software into your company helps you determine savings and earnings potential in all kinds of ways. If you’d like to know more about how your company could benefit from business software development, check out our ROI calculator.

Our company is run by a team of dedicated professionals with years of experience in the industry. We’ve worked hard to build up trust with our clients by creating profitable software solutions, and we think it shows. If you have any questions about how business software development could benefit your company, don’t hesitate to call one of our trusted professionals today. They’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

FileMaker Dynamic Gradient Layouts

Dynamic Gradient Layouts

Hopefully, you have had time to check out some of the fantastic new features in FileMaker 16. One of the more useful features, from a development standpoint, is the Layout Objects palette. This shows you a hierarchy of objects placed on your layout, including fields, portals, buttons, web objects, rules, and shapes. Upon examination, one thing you might have noticed is that there are lot more objects on your layouts than you might realize. Place a few fields and buttons in a portal, and you can see it add up very quickly.

While the Layout Objects palette undoubtedly makes managing all of this easier, you may want to minimize the number of objects you are placing on your layout. Shapes, in particular, create a lot of clutter – especially if you are like me, and you like to use shaded and colorized areas to delineate different parts of your layout. This is a good technique to help users understand the logical hierarchy of their data by putting it together in chunks, or drawing attention to the more important data points.

 

Take a look at the layout below. How many objects do you think have been placed on this layout? How many parts are there? Go ahead, take a look. I’ll wait.

 

filemaker dynamic gradient

 

Now for the answer: zero. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Bupkis. There are absolutely no objects placed on the layout. Here’s what the Layout Objects palette looks like:

 

 

This was achieved by a relatively simple and obscure technique. In essence, we are exploiting a little-known quirk of the Parts definition. Everyone knows that any part can have a gradient applied to it. But did you know that a gradient, when the two color sliders are perfectly stacked on top of one another, creates a hard line between the two colors? Furthermore, did you know that you can have more than one set of gradient sliders on one part or object? That’s what I did here. Look closely at the slider for the header.  At first glance, it might look like there are just two sliders, but there are actually four – two sets, each stacked on top of one another. One set consists of a black and a grey slider; the second consists of the same grey and blue. This gives us the same flat, sharp look that we would get from placing rectangle objects on the layout.

 

 

To add an additional slider to a gradient control, just hover your mouse over an empty area of the control. A green “+” circle will appear. Click to add the slider. You will need to do this twice to replicate the technique shown here and create three distinct areas of solid color using four sliders (note: you can have no more than five sliders total, so if you are hoping for four areas of color, too bad).

 

So how did we get the vertically divided area in the body part of the list view? I can’t tell you, it’s very advanced. Just kidding. It’s extremely simple, and requires only one step: by default, the angle of the gradient tool is set to 270º. This divides the gradient horizontally. By rotating the gradient angle control to 0º, we change to the desired vertical division.

 

 

Here’s another really cool thing about dividing a body part this way: by changing the colors of the gradient for the active state, we can change both of these color areas to whatever we want as the user hovers over the record. This is not easily achievable with a rectangle object placed on the layout.

 

There are some things you need to consider before applying this technique to your own layout. First of all, you can control the size of each section of color by moving a pair of sliders to a different location on the control. You will quickly find that the control is finicky, and you will see the colors flip-flop as you try to stack them up. Be patient, young padawan. You will learn to control them with practice. As for getting an exact measurement, guides are your friend. There is no numeric indicator of the sizing of the sections. Not only that, but resizing the part means resizing all of its gradient sections, and this can affect your design. Second, as soon as you place any object on your layout that is not limited in its anchoring to top and left only, you will find that your layout parts have become elastic in browse mode, and some wild resizing can take place. You may find a circumstance where this is a desirable behavior; so far, I have found no practical use for this. Contact me if you come up with one!

 

All in all, this can be a good technique if used sparingly and with forethought. Have fun!
FileMaker 16

FileMaker 16 Is Here!

FileMaker, Inc., a subsidiary of Apple Computer, announced the release of FileMaker 16. This version is packed with some very important new features that makes the FileMaker platform even more powerful.

FileMaker was already a great product – so great that we have been able to devote 100% of our services for all of our customers to it for a solid 18+ years. Now, with FileMaker 16, Alchemy Consulting stands ready to deliver even more and greater apps.

Among the new features:

  • New mobile features that enhance the user experience on iPad and other iOS devices, including better signature capture, and animations that give better feedback on what’s happening with your data.
  • Cards, a new way of presenting information in a window. It’s cool, trust me!
  • Enhanced PDF support
  • An all-new interface for Windows users
  • New ways to connect to the rest of the world using great APIs like REST, cURL, and JSON. Again, trust me, it’s very cool!

This is only a tiny scratch of the surface of this great new release! Find out more at http://www.filemaker.com/products/whats-new.html#home. And if you have any questions about our custom business software, or our Filemaker developers that create it, contact us.

field service app

Behind the Decision to Create the ServTek Field Service App

Service businesses are everywhere. In fact, much has been made of the fact that the U.S. economy has become primarily a service economy. Roughly 80% of our economy is now service-based. Much of that service is handled by field service personnel — people who come to you, whether its in your home or your business. The spectrum of businesses that meet this description is vast – from plumbing and HVAC service, to mobile dog grooming, to industrial furnace maintenance.

 

Southern California, and many, many communities throughout the U.S., are populated with small businesses that dispatch employees in a vehicle to multiple locations. Often, how many locations can be reached in one day has a direct effect on the bottom line; more is better. Adding to this essential need is a host of problems that need to be solved:
  • Communication: Sharing information merely by mobile phone or texting is inefficient, even with touch-to-talk systems. While a lot of information can be conveyed in a short conversation, there is no documentation of important info like addresses or scheduling changes. The field agent has to write it down (hopefully not while driving!).
  • Double-entry: If you’ve ever jotted down something someone else already wrote on the other end of the phone line, you’ve experienced double entry. Or, if you’ve typed info into a spreadsheet that was already written down on a completed work order, same thing. In today’s world, if you are duplicating information, you are, quite frankly, doing it wrong. Not only is it terribly wasteful, but it creates a perfect environment for two big problems: transcription errors and dueling data. The first one is obvious – people sometimes misread or mistype information. The latter of the two simply means that if you have one address for a customer in one place, and a different one in another, you now have no way of knowing which one is the current, correct address. Who gets to be the one to call the customer to straighten it out?
  • Navigation: Whether your company uses standalone GPS systems or just a map app on a mobile phone, there is still the often time-consuming task of entering the address into the unit. Once again, double-entry, and once again, not doing it right.
  • Paper forms: Who doesn’t instantly recognize the beat-up aluminum box/clipboard of the tradesman? Who doesn’t love it when he asks you to fill out your address and phone number on the top half of the form? Oh, right, nobody loves that. And see above re: double entry. That form is most likely essential, as it has an authorized signature on it. If only there was a better way… (see below for a better way).
  • Delayed access:  While the completed paper form is out with the field service technician, it’s not back at the office. So at the end of the day, that stack of paper copies has to make its way back so it can be dealt with by the office staff. Perhaps the company policy is to take the truck home overnight – not helpful if the truck has to come back to the office first, just to drop off a stack of completed work orders.
  • Collecting payment: If your people collect payment in the field, you probably want to give your clients the option to pay with a credit card. Unfortunately, unless you have a way to run the card right then and there, you are probably violating the terms of your card processor agreement if the info – number, CVV, expiration date, etc. – is being written down or stored in a way that could be considered insecure. If anything goes wrong and your customer’s card data is stolen, you’ve not only lost a customer, you’ve also potentially exposed yourself to legal action. Not good.
  • Customer Service: Customers change appointments. It’s what they do. Customers also make emergency calls, making it necessary to juggle an already full schedule. They cancel all the time, too. If your job calendar is always changing, you need to keep your field service team up to date without wasting even more time on the phone.

 

At Alchemy Consulting, we knew we could solve these and many other problems. We have experience with companies like this, and we know there are so many more that could use our help. With our well-known expertise at user interface design, we also knew that we could make it straightforward and easy to learn.

But why, you may ask, try to compete with the many third-party apps that claim to be the perfect answer to the problem of field service mobility? Could we really build a better field service app?  The answer turns out to be an easy “yes,” because of one difference: the word “Core.”
Alchemy Consulting is a custom development shop, using the power and rapid app development power of FileMaker. That means we custom-tailor every app we write. The Core part above means that we identified some common elements to start with, adding all of the underpinnings to add tons of new functionality on an as-needed basis. Off-the-shelf and vertical market field service app s do not possess this advantage. We handily beat all of the competition in this regard.
Thus, ServTek was born. We started by identifying a simple, core group of tasks that most office and mobile users would need – regardless of industry. We knew from the get-go that mobility was a key component, but that the office staff who support mobile users should be given equal time. We built a system that gives the office staff the ability to schedule jobs as they come in, in real-time. We hooked in the mobile component so that field service techs can see the job queue live as it updates, and we gave them the ability to get driving directions in Google Maps, enter work order details, collect signatures, log photos at the job site, run a credit card using a card swiper, and email the customer an invoice copy. Add to that a billing module for the office, along with aging reports, and a lot gets done. Boom.
Because the ServTek Core field service app is just a starting point, we can add tons of new functionality. A few examples:

  • Inventory Management
  • Time Tracking
  • Work Orders
  • Work in Progress
  • Contracts
  • DocuSign
  • Subcontractors
  • Mailing Lists
  • Sales/Follow Ups

Because no two businesses are alike, we can easily add other types of functionality as well. There is nothing in the list above that we have not done, in some form or another.
If your business sends people out in the field, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the ServTek field service app. It is an effective business software solution. Call us today at 888.663.6382 to learn more.

filemaker inventory

Inventory: FileMaker has the Answer

FileMaker, Inc. has published an excellent new e-book that outlines how businesses can leverage inventory systems built on the FileMaker platform. Not only does it outline the benefits of having a custom inventory management system, but it gives some important insights and statistics that will help with making the decision to go forward.

Here at Alchemy Consulting, our Filemaker Developers have built many inventory management software systems – call us silly, but we like building them!

In our e-book, you will find important information on the history and functionality of Filemaker, how its business software solutions work, and specifically how its inventory management system can help save you time, effort, and money, and help to streamline your business activities.

Download the e-book at http://info2.filemaker.com/GL-Inventory-Management-Reg.html.

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