(Originally published on 5/10/2010)
So - What's YOUR Plan?
What is the continuity plan for your small business? If you're like most small businesses, the answer is "mmmm...well..." - and then a long pause, broken only by the sound of pen to sticky note; something along the lines of "disaster plan???"
It is completely understandable that this may not be on your radar when you're starting a business. When you're busy planning a company's growth, it seems almost counter-productive to plan for possible interruptions to that growth. However, adding that plan to your priority list may make the difference when ensuring your company's survival.
Here are some of the scenarios to consider in your business continuity plan:
If you're sidelined by illness or injury, how long can your business function without you? That answer can vary, depending on your industry, number of employees, and other factors relevant to your specific business.
One way to help you determine these factors: what do you personally do for your business each day? Create a list of your daily tasks; cross-reference them with contact names, websites, authorization information, as needed. Now do the same thing for monthly and quarterly tasks (if you're down with the flu or laid up in the hospital during month-end or quarterly tax time, you don't want to be caught short).
If you have employees, it's a good idea to have all your key people repeat this same exercise. If you're a sole proprietor, with no employees, decide who you can trust to be your business delegate while you're out of commission. Sit down with them, review the information you've covered in your lists, make sure to cover any questions they might have.
Now; keep the operations doc(s) somewhere secure and accessible by your business delegate(s) in case of emergency. One inexpensive solution would be to use Google Docs; Google Docs can be accessed from any location, and you can choose who a Google document can be shared with, limiting access to your secure information to "need to know", without leaving them to guess that your uber-secret password is "purplepeopleeater".
Whether you've got a whole office, with multiple computers, servers, phone and fax equipment, or just a SOHO environment, hardware failure/theft can be a standstill event. If at all possible, keep a maintenance contract on your equipment through the manufacturer or the reseller you purchased them from.
Keep a scanned "soft copy" of all maintenance contracts and warranties offsite, as well as a list of all model and serial numbers; again, Google Docs is a good place to keep an electronic copy of these critical docs. An inexpensive theft-retrieval option is Prey, a free open-source alternative to Lo-Jack.
If you find yourself having to rebuild work systems from scratch, not having backup copies of your software can be a real heartbreaker. There are some really great free open-source software products that can help you get a running start, but if you have specialized software specific to your business or industry, there's simply no replacement.
Keep a list of your software, manufacturer, and serial/product numbers, along with contact information for each vendor and product purchase dates in a spreadsheet that's kept along with your other important information. That way, if nothing else, you can contact the vendors, verify your ownership, and get new copies sent out if they're not already available for download via vendor website.
Quite often, small businesses specialize in hard-to-find niche products and services; if your products are destroyed by disaster, or stolen from your place of business, which of your customers will take a business hit in return? Consider keeping a "friendly competitor list"; you probably already have this as a part of your business plan, and it's better to potentially pay an upcharge to maintain good customer relationships.
Make sure your business insurance will cover the cost of replacing products and materials in the event of loss. If you run your business out of your home, double-check with your insurance agent about coverage for your products, materials and equipment, and acquire a separate insurance policy if neccessary.
This is where keeping an up-to-date inventory (preferably in an electronic format, backed up offsite regularly) can make the difference in getting a quick insurance payout, vs. waiting until you can physically estimate product loss.
Fire, flood, earthquakes, theft, power outages, bomb threats, major sporting events - it's a wonder we can ever get any work done. I once worked a contract at a company that had three bomb threats in one week (I found a new contract shortly thereafter). I've also worked in the area of a weeklong major sporting event, and traffic was brought to an absolute standstill in the area for the entire time. Needless to say, this kind of disruption can choke a business's daily activities.
Consider having an off-site work plan; for small businesses, products like Skype or eVoice can route incoming business communication to any location; Skype allows for collaborative communication, including voice and video, for a very reasonable price (free for Skype-to-Skype communication, approximately $30/quarterly per line for external U.S. calls.). eVoice routes to a designated phone number, and can also e-mail you an automated voice-to-text translation, if you're not able to get proper phone reception.
Have an emergency login area of your external site (Ex: "mayday.yourcompanywebsite.com") where you and your employees can locate contact information on the fly.
In the past decade, we've seen entire regions rendered incapable of continuing daily business activities for weeks or months; offsite data backup is a key component of a business continuity plan, and can pay for itself a hundred times over.
If you've configured your computer to backup to an offsite location on a weekly or nightly basis, even if your computer is destroyed by a catastrophic event, as soon as you can access a new computer, the backup data can be downloaded to the new system, and you're back in business.
One service I highly recommend is Carbonite; it's available for PC or Mac, and is very reasonably priced per unit. Another offsite backup service that comes highly recommended is Mozy (Edit: as of 6/1/2011, my favorite offsite backup is CrashPlan - plans start at $5/month for unlimited space per computer!)
If you absolutely cannot afford a backup plan for every computer in your business, have the computers back up to a central computer, and back it up to your offsite service.
Have a plan for another region to work out of in case of widespread catastrophe; keep in mind resources such as coworking facilities, public transportation, and accessibility. If it's an actual physical location that you have controlled access to, consider keeping backup supplies and equipment there.
If possible, keep a "bugout box" that can be filled and carried rapidly; make sure it's big enough to put company checkbook, laptop, local backup drives, a receipt book, and legal pad.
Here's a list of other resources to leverage in the event of "business unusual":
Small Business Administration Disaster Assistance
CoWorking Wiki - a resource list of coworking locations across the U.S.
Institute for Business & Home Safety
Remember: every business changes from year to year, so put it on your calendar to review your business continuity plan once a year. If you follow it, you stand a much greater chance to be reviewing it for many, many years to come!
Addition: here's the link to our Small Business Checklist download; please feel free to share it with other small businesses; our greatest hope is that you'll never have to use it.