How Our Growing Tech Company Stayed Open During Hurricane María
As the leader of a healthcare technology company,I have the responsibility to make sure my co-workers and I are ready for anything, in both the best and the worst of times.
While having our company headquarters in Puerto Rico gives us advantages that I wouldn’t trade for anything, Hurricane María last September brought about circumstances impossible to foresee. Our building flooded, power and telephone lines were disrupted and supermarkets and hospitals were closed for weeks.
To put the devastation into perspective, Hurricane María completely destroyed more than 87,000 homes in Puerto Rico (with more than 385,000 other homes sustaining major damage). Some 250,000 Puerto Rico residents were displaced to the mainland United States, in some cases permanently.
One study from the New England Journal of Medicine said that Hurricane María claimed some 4,600 lives, though the authors added that even this staggering figure could turn out to be conservative. In terms of costs, it’s estimated that Hurricane María has cost more than $90 billion.
We were one of 10,000 businesses affected by the hurricane. And yet, we knew that maintaining normal operations in the face of such obstacles was non-negotiable, given the vital technical services we provide to insurance companies and medical providers. And while not every tech company will have to deal with the catastrophe of a hurricane, there will almost certainly be unforeseen obstacles that test every company’s resilience.
We're in the middle of hurricane season again.
Now that we're in the middle of hurricane season 2018, here are the lessons we learned that other companies facing disasters similar to ours -- especially companies in technology -- can do to "weather the storm" when disaster strikes.
Build a team and a company culture you can trust.
Running a tech startup comes with its ups and downs, especially if your company is as ambitious as ours. At Abartys Health, our mission is to use a centralized data hub among stakeholders to reduce the $750 billion loss that’s incurred every year in the U.S. healthcare industry.
When Hurricane María hit, our culture of responsibility and accountability was put to the test: I went days without being able to get in touch with several co-workers. Yet, I was confident that the work was getting done. Our programming team, for example, worked on their computers locally and later made updates to the system once they were able to access the Internet.
I was particularly amazed by how effective a communication channel Slack proved to be; team members took the initiative to check in and provide project updates whenever they had internet access. In short, our talented team members were determined to keep the operation running without anyone on the leadership team having to micromanage.
The whole experience validated my belief that a great company needs to prioritize cultivating talented, self-motivated and resourceful people. It also taught me that whether a company makes this a priority may become the measure of its resilience. When storm clouds hit, this is what will decide whether your company will swim or sink.
Have a dependable disaster plan -- and stick to it.
Almost every company has a business plan. Some companies (especially well-established ones) have business continuity plans and policies. But few companies ever consider apocalyptic scenarios. Hurricane María taught me that every company -- and tech companies in particular -- need a plan for when key infrastructure fails.
Logistical challenges, such as losing electricity or internet, might seem impossible for a tech company to overcome. Operations come to a screeching halt; banking is frozen; client account executives are pushed into survival mode; and development (a constant driving force at any tech company) is put on the back burner.
So, what will your company do when a disaster brings about unimaginable logistical challenges? For me, a good disaster plan should include:
1. An emergency home base. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, many of our team members worked from my co-founder’s apartment, which had a stable source of power and internet, and wasn’t severely impacted by the storm. Some team members even made it a temporary home. The level of bonding this brought about was remarkable.
Because you can’t foresee how long you might be unable to operate from your normal place of business, the value of having an emergency home base when things go haywire cannot be understated.
2. A designated person to leave before a predicted disaster. Before María brought catastrophic conditions, some team members left the island in order to maintain communication with our clients. My co-founder left for Atlanta where her family is from, and our lead architect went to Miami. This helped ensure that we’d have dependable communication with our clients as well as the peace of mind that our systems would continue to run smoothly.
For tech companies, having team players who are strong communicators, competent both in the big picture of your company as well as the finer technical points and individual relationships is always an asset.
3. Logistical and technical considerations made beforehand. Electricity is something we all take for granted. But what do you do -- especially if you’re a tech company -- if the power goes out?
We were fortunate that a board member had access to generators through a personal connection. We also purchased and delivered several generators for our team in the aftermath of the storm. Having a backup plan for logistical needs in the face of calamity will provide much-needed aid in maintaining business operations and help staffers regain a sense of normalcy.
4. A means for maintaining contact with clients (and leads). Facing and overcoming unexpected challenges when it comes to delivering for a client is a natural part of entrepreneurship. If we hadn't appreciated this before Hurricane María, we could have been in serious trouble.
As the hurricane approached, we were right in the middle of closing a major client. Before the storm made landfall, I forwarded my co-founder (who'd left for Atlanta) every piece of client communication I had, knowing that we would be without electricity for a few days (that loss would last for months for much of the island). Not only was she able to close the deal, she also communicated the new client’s needs to our lead architect in Miami.
Of course, some clients were dealing with the same catastrophe as we were. To give their businesses peace of mind, my co-founder called and emailed these clients to tell them their data was safe.
The bottom line is that disasters happen. You need to maintain your calm with clients and maintain as much normalcy as possible.
5. Sensitivity to your team’s needs. A disaster like this can put everything into perspective. As important as it is to maintain normalcy with clients, providing support for your co-workers is just as important, if not more. Start by understanding the needs of every team member on a personal level. When María struck, the last thing we wanted was for our colleagues to have to choose between being there for their families and meeting a deadline at work.
Our VP of engineering, for example, lives in a remote area of the island and has two small children at home. After the hurricane, he had to fill up his own water tank for months on end just to have water in his house.
This often required him to leave the office early and, sometimes, he could make it in only a few times per week. Not only were we happy to make this concession, but we provided support for him and his family in other ways as well.
The lesson is, if the leaders of a company don’t have genuine concern for the well-being of their team members, they can’t expect them to perform their jobs at a high level. This may seem obvious, but once again, the advent of disaster put this notion into stark relief.
In sum, disasters are, by their nature, unpredictable. Even though we knew Hurricane María was coming before the storm made landfall, the impact was far greater than we could have anticipated.
Ultimately, the storm tested the integrity of our business and our ability to be resilient. It also made me more aware than ever that resilience is probably the single greatest predictor of a company’s success. The good news is that if you’re able to plan for these five disaster needs, you’ll find there’s no challenge your company can’t overcome.
Dolmarie Mendez is co-founder and CEO of Abartys Health, a health insurance tech company that has created a system that allows seamless data flow and communication among insurers, doctors and patients. She was inspired to co-found Abartys Health after being misdiagnosed herself, due to poorly tracked health records - which resulted in a four month hospital stay which almost cost her life. Mendez is a health systems professional, a certified healthcare reform specialist, self insurance certified specialist. She was named one of Caribbean Business’s Top 40 Women Under 40 in 2015.