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Buy vs Build Considerations for your Data Importer

Jeff Fiddler

Updated July 14, 2023

• 4 min read

Takeaways

  • Building an importer is tempting because you can use in-house talent and retain complete control over the design and user experience.
  • But DIY importers are generally less reliable, lack key features, and require a lot of time and resources to maintain and improve.
  • An off-the-shelf data importer from a credible vendor will save long nights, frustration, and money in the long run.

Looking for a better way to import data files from customers? I've got good news! Any proficient engineer can design a decent importer tailored to a particular file within a couple of weeks.

The bad news? As the requirements for the importer expand and change, edge cases and obstacles will bedevil your homegrown importer long after that developer has moved on to other features.

After years of hard-won experience helping others reengineer their data importing systems, we have developed some insights into what it takes to build a high quality importer. We've summarized some of the challenges and tradeoffs into eight key considerations, which we share below.

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Speed

There's no way around it: if you build your own data importer, you'll need to allocate engineering resources, and it's going to take a while to do it right. Building a data importer from scratch takes a few weeks for the simplest solution. If you need more advanced features, it can take months to get a prototype, and years to get it right.

Unless you have a team member who's the designated import guru, your DIY importer will likely get deprioritized in favor of more urgent tasks. With the right vendor, you can get a self-service importer up and running in a day, and your developers can keep working on your product.

User experience

Your data uploader isn't just working for you–it's working for your customers. That means your DIY data importer needs to be user-friendly, including for non-technical users.

When you decide to buy over build, you'll be leveraging the work of experts who've already analyzed and considered numerous design trade-offs and the ins and outs of the user experience.

Total cost of ownership

When you get an in-house developer (or five) to build a DIY importer from scratch, you are now investing full-time salaries and benefits into the project, and the labor costs alone may undermine the ROI of the initiative.

Whenever your importer requires maintenance, you'll be dipping back into this pool of highly skilled (and expensive) talent. And it's not just developer costs that you have to consider; your support team will need to expand to pick up any of the slack when the importer hits a snag.

Buying a solution costs money, but it doesn't have to break the bank. By choosing a data importer that's transparent about costs, you can budget accordingly and avoid hefty charges. Be sure to check whether your vendor charges for white-labeling, too–it can really add up. An affordable off-the-shelf option will almost always reduce operational costs in the long run.

Edge cases

When you're handling large amounts of data, edge cases abound. No matter how carefully you explain the CSV import process, customers are going to enter their data in unanticipated ways. And because these issues are idiosyncratic, however long you think you'll need to fix them, you'll need longer.

If you build your data importer yourself, these time-consuming and frustrating bugs are your problem. If you buy, however, the vendor is there to help. Because they see thousands of imports a day, they are constantly improving their products to catch new edge cases.

Focus

Any time you add a new item to your to-do list, you're taking time away from your primary product and risking derailing your roadmap. Before deciding to build it yourself, carefully consider whether a DIY data uploader is core to your strategy and objectives. If it's important but not core, then buying a data importer will allow you to stay focused on your current vision with one less distraction.

Security

Businesses must not only protect the data files they collect and store from customers, but also adhere to data privacy regulations like GDPR and CCPA.

When a DIY importer breaks down and there is time pressure to finish the onboarding process, there is an incentive for both sides to cut corners and email files back and forth in unsecured messages. A reliable data importer avoids this problem.

Getting security and privacy right requires investments in architecture and infrastructure, which may not be in your initial budget.

Reliability

Even with a talented dev team, a DIY importer is more likely to break, especially as your company scales. This leads to increased downtime, failed uploads, and an overwhelmed customer support team. For reliable import success, it makes sense to turn to a vendor who thinks about nothing but importing, day in and day out.

Scalability

As your business grows, your data import needs will grow, too. And that doesn't just mean more data. It means more challenges, more edge cases, and more requirements. Do you have the in-house resources to scale an internal tool across your entire customer base?

By choosing a data import partner that supports clients of all sizes, at all stages, you'll be able to capitalize on your growth instead of sinking time and money into tinkering with legacy import scripts.

Maintenance and improvements

You did it: your DIY data importer is ready to go! Unfortunately, the work isn't done. Now, you enter maintenance mode. If your importer breaks down, your engineers have to drop what they're doing and start troubleshooting. With a large team and plenty of time, this isn't an overwhelming prospect. For the rest of us, it's impractical and counterproductive.

If you buy a data importer, the vendor is also expected to maintain and improve it. They'll fix bugs, answer your questions, and continually refine the functionality so that you can take data importing for granted and focus on the work at hand.