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Business Survival Skills Everyone Should Know

You’ve worked too hard for too long not to be prepped for a natural disaster. Here’s how to be ready.

by Elaine Pofeldt

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When Hurricane Sandy descended on Long Island, New York, last October, Jeff Stern, 53, principal of Eagle Business Solutions, faced the same inconveniences as many of his neighbors. Power in his area was out for nine days, and there were gas shortages that led to rationing, making it tough to get around.

Nonetheless, Stern didn’t shut his business down for a single day, thanks to smart disaster planning at the Port Jefferson consultancy he started three years ago after a long career in banking. Before the superstorm hit, he’d topped off his gas tank and filled up an extra 20-gallon tank, so he could get around (and charge up his phone). He’d made it a habit of backing up his data offsite using Carbonite, a low-cost system, so he had no worries about losing it. He’d identified an internet café where he could work on his laptop in such an event – and promptly set up shop there the next day.

“I was always in touch with clients,” he says.

Many business owners were not as well-prepared for a storm of the hurricane’s magnitude and have lost business while restoring operations. Business interruption insurance can help ease the pain in major disasters, but it won’t help you if your out-of-state or international clients get frustrated because they can’t reach you.

While they may sympathize with your situation, being caught unprepared can ultimately damage your relationships with them and hurt the reputation of your business. This is especially important for those who have started their businesses in mid-career and don’t want to lose valuable time.

“You can’t run your business without a disaster recovery plan,” says Larry Newell, a manager in St. Louis-based public accounting firm Brown Smith Wallace’s risk services practice.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much time to put together a disaster preparedness plan. Do it now, so you don’t find yourself scrambling to get back up and running if your area is hit. Here are the questions to ask yourself to determine the steps you need to take

How will I communicate with clients, staff and the general public? Every business owner should keep backups of the company’s contact list at home and in several locations offsite (like an online backup service or safe deposit box) in case one copy becomes inaccessible, says Bill Corbett, who runs a public relations firm in Floral Park, New York. Corbett, whose town was also hit by Hurricane Sandy, discovered that his bank was flooded—and he couldn’t get near the safe deposit box where he kept company records he needed. Fortunately, he had other copies easily accessible.

Don’t assume you’ll have access to electricity, internet service or a strong mobile phone signal—or that your team will, he says. He recommends telling employees and customers to check the company’s website or Twitter page for updates if other means of communication go down. “Facebook is rarely ever down,” he says. You can use these platforms to send direct messages, he notes. Facebook also enables you to set up an email account, which you may be able to access from a mobile phone. Make sure employees and important customers know that email address before a disaster.

As an alternative to your usual internet service, consider paying a little extra to your mobile phone provider for MiFi service, which can turn your home or location into a mobile hot spot and give you internet access. You can also buy a separate MiFi device and prepaid cards. (I bought one at a local Walmart after Hurricane Sandy, and it worked really well.)

How will I get around? In a serious natural disaster, public transportation may be crippled, and, it may be hard to buy gasoline. Consider how you’ll run your business in this instance. If your business is home-based, do you need a generator so you can work there? Is it worthwhile to rent a temporary desk in a local business incubator that has a backup generator so you will have a place to work if something goes wrong? If your office is distant, is it possible to get remote access to your technology? If your office is not far away, can you ride your bicycle there—and is your bike well-maintained enough to get you there? It’s hard to be prepared for every possibility but even having one or two options lined up will put you in a stronger position.

Is my data safe? If you are currently only backing up your data to a hard drive, consider using a service that also copies your data to servers elsewhere, preferably in another geographic area that’s unlikely to be hit by the same disaster. “Should the hard drive housed at your main location fail, it’s not going to do you any good in the event of a disaster there,” says Jerry Irvine, chief information officer of Prescient Solutions, an IT consultancy based in Schaumberg, Illinois, and a member of the National Cyber Security Task Force.

If you are using older computer systems or software programs to access your data, find out if it’s possible to replace them if they are damaged suddenly. “If you have old technology, it may be very hard to get,” Irvine notes. It may be time to upgrade to newer versions or cloud-based systems that can be accessed from anywhere.

Of course, it can be expensive and time consuming to protect every piece of data in your business—and costs can vary widely--so prioritize what’s important and protect that first, experts say. If you bring in outside consultants to help you, make sure you ask business owners you know and trust for a recommendation to someone they’ve used, says Tim Peter, 45, a Long Valley, New Jersey-based consultant who specializes in digital marketing and ecommerce after running websites for the hotel chain Wyndham Worldwide. Good consultants who are out of your price range will often refer you to someone they know who caters to small businesses on similar budgets, he says. Even so, evaluate them carefully. “Look at what they have done in the past,” he advises. Someone who has done a project similar to yours for, say, Amazon, would be a better bet than a consultant who shows you work samples done for his cousin.

Keeping in touch with customers isn't the only thing that’s important. It’s also essential to have the information you need to keep money coming in and stay current on your bills and other financial obligations, like taxes. “You can go out of business if you don’t have your accounts receivable information,” notes Corbett.