Deep Dive

Why you should build custom internal software with Mark Johnson

Published on
March 21, 2024
Matthew Gira
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Mark Johnson is the Co-founder & Managing Partner at Michigan Software Labs, a software agency that builds custom software for Fortune 1000 companies. To date, they’ve built over 100 different products, have a team of about 50 people, and have built software for companies like the United Way, Caterpillar, and HarperCollinsPublishers.

Contrary to what you might assume at first, Mark isn’t a software developer. He would be considered what many might call “the business co-founder”. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the tech or can’t do a little bit of coding himself, it’s just not his strong suit or focus.

Mark actually created his first app after his wife told him she wanted an app to listen to the radio while running. I’ll let him explain that in the interview though.

Before we jump into that story and why you should build custom internal software, let’s start with the beginning of Mark’s innovation journey: building clocks.

Here are some snippets from my conversation with Mark Johnson:

Note: these answers are summaries and are cleaned up to be easier to read. Full answers can be found in the full episode!

You grew up in West Michigan, went to Hope College and studied business, got your MBA at Cornerstone, and then a year after your MBA you were cofounding a company called Michigan Software Labs that you still run today. Before we dive into some of those experiences, did you have any early influences that set you on this trajectory towards entrepreneurship & innovation?

My brother, Nate and I had a clock company. This is back in the early days where you could get a jigsaw and create something. We would actually make it in the shape of Michigan and we'd have clocks that we would be able to sell door to door.

It was twenty five dollars if you just wanted the lower peninsula and then for an extra five dollars you could have the upper and the lower peninsula. We would get clocks that were sourced from a local clockmaker and just used a saw to cut wood out in the shape of Michigan and then put a clock in there.

That was our introduction to entrepreneurship.

You recently posted about corporations creating their own internal software and that being a secret sauce to some of these companies. Why and when should a company build internal software rather than just grabbing all of their software from vendors that already exist?

You could use the analogy of cooking: you only have a certain amount of time. If you're going to create everything from scratch, it's just going to take longer than what you might have available to you.

The way that we think about software is that eighty percent of the the software you’re using can be off the shelf. You don't really need a custom version of everything for your accounting or people software.

The other twenty percent can really help differentiate your business and allow you to scale. At Michigan Software Labs, we do a business model canvas with our clients and we try and figure out what that 20 percent needs to be. What is going to create the most amount of value for your business?

It's similar to cooking where you wouldn't want to create all these sauces for a meal that you need to get out the door in 13 minutes.

We think of software in the same way. What are some things that should be made from scratch in your timeframe of work? What are some things that should be pulled off the shelf?

Has there been an innovation you’ve worked on, supported, or just seen that has left a lasting mark on you? Is there a project or venture you’ve worked on where it’s been career or life changing in ways you didn’t expect?

There's this one that we've been working on recently which is trying to help enable navigation for the blind and low vision community. It's a company, a nonprofit actually, out of Utah that's working on this smart cane technology that allows you to navigate an airport or a public space. It’s basically giving someone the freedom to travel without needing to have someone guide you or having a dog even.

We did the software part of it and it connects to a hardware device that can read different tags in the world. It allows you to know when to turn, you can use your voice, you can have the earbuds to make it completely discreet where you're trying to go, and it's really accurate. It’s really cool to see it come out.