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Plan Ahead for a Disaster

Here are 5 steps you can take in 5 minutes to protect your business and be resilient at the worst times.

Reprinted with permission from Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses, 2nd edition, by Donna R. Childs (©2008). All rights reserved.

The most valuable information I can share with you is to improve your business processes from lessons learned by our peers in the small business community. I have set up a Web site for that purpose, www.preparedsmallbusiness.com. Another important lesson is that you must test your disaster preparedness plan. There are some risks that you cannot reasonably anticipate without performing a drill.

Let me share two stories with you to reinforce this point. When speaking at an event of the National Association of Women Business Owners, I met a business owner who told me how she had backed up all of her business critical data online and off-site. Brilliant--she had her tax records, customer information, and all critical data secured. Then she made a secondary backup in the event that the first one would fail. Also brilliant--in my case, I have backups stored at locations removed from one another by more than 500 miles such that in the event one has a problem, I have redundancy.

But she did not test her backups. When disaster struck, she found, to her horror, that her primary backup was defective because it did not capture all of her data; only a random sample of some business data. Then she turned to her secondary backup and learned that it was not an independent backup of the original data, but rather a copy of the defective primary backup. She did not have two independent backup sets of data; she had duplicates of a single defective set. With advance testing, this could be avoided. I do a spot check on my backup data sets monthly to make sure that what I need is safe and secure.

This is intended to be a strategic handbook to guide small business owners as you develop contingency plans that will improve your business processes in case you ever experience a disaster. You need to involve your employees, their families, your family, and others in putting in place your plan. Do not tackle this alone. And even if you put in only a few steps at a time toward a full disaster preparedness plan, you will be in a better place than you were when you started. It is not that hard.

To prove this, here is what I call "Take Five"--five things you can do in five minutes or less to improve the disaster resilience of your business:

  1. Provide bank wire instructions to your insurance company. In the event of a disaster, normal postal operations may be disrupted and if you have to evacuate, how will you collect a paper check for your insurance claim? I provided bank wire instructions to my insurance company to ensure that should I ever file a claim, the funds would be electronically deposited to my business bank account. This not only helped my capital liquidity, it was one less thing for me to worry about after 9/11. Cash flow is critical to your business; don't let postal disruptions delay the deposit of your insurance claim. And do this for your homeowner's or tenant's insurance policies as well. It only takes a few minutes to collect this information from your bank and provide it to your insurance company.
  2. The next time you are at the post office, pick up a handful of the "Certificate of mailing" receipts and keep them available in your office. I used them in all correspondence with disaster relief agencies, and these certificates (which cost me less than $1) preserved claims of mine that were valuable.
  3. Obtain alternate phone numbers, such as those of out-of-state relatives or home numbers for your customers, suppliers, and employees. You can compose an e-mail request for this information and send it off in less than five minutes.
  4. Give some thought to the "buddy system." For most small businesses, it is hardly cost-effective to lease redundant office space. I recommend a buddy system: Find another small business, a buddy, who is not in your industry and not a competitor. Suggest that you place hardware and other supplies in one another's offices to provide free or low-cost office redundancy for one another in the event of an emergency. I have buddies in neighboring states and because they come to Manhattan for business meetings, they have an office conference room they can use when they are in the city, with downtime between meetings. You can find possible buddies through business associations, friends, or your local chamber of commerce.
  5. Make a laminated emergency contact card to put in your wallet. This will make it easier for medical personnel to reach your family.

If you have done all of the work to prepare, the response to a disaster is much easier. You would be surprised to know how calm I was on 9/11. I felt I had done everything I could to prepare, I had behaved in a responsible manner, and everything else was in God's hands. It gave me true peace of mind. And that was priceless.

Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best is available through John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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