We felt like cat burglars. Gingerly walking down eight flights of darkened stairs at our office building, flashlights leading the way, we clutched the heart and soul of the Business Press – a lone computer and server equipment Without incident we headed out the door with our loot and the feeling we had pulled a fast one. We had. But our crime was not theft. Ours was an error of omission rather than commission. And it was an offense I will bet many other small businesses commit regularly and often without recourse. We were caught wholly unprepared for a business disaster. Fortunately, some dumb luck and some smart, resourceful employees got us through without permanently debilitating losses but it taught us how to be ready for the next time – and it’s a lesson I’m glad to share with other businesses that might face similar situations in the future.
These observations might seem laughably basic to larger companies and organizations that have elaborate disaster plans. But for small businesses with limited resources, a little foresight and planning can go a long way toward weathering a business disaster that could have devastating consequences ranging from serious financial losses to literally putting a company out of business. As business disturbances go, ours was more a temporary setback than a full-scale calamity. The Saturday following Thanksgiving, three inches of water were found in the basement of Mallick Tower, the 10-story, 90,000-square-foot building on the edge of downtown that’s home to the Fort Worth Business Press and some 60 other tenants. A pipe supporting the building’s fire system had ruptured at just the right place for water to make its way into the building’s switchgear, a piece of equipment not unlike a breaker box at your home. The switchgear supplies power to the entire building. Compounding the problem: Mud was seeping in, proving once again that crud really does flow downhill.
Round-the-clock work failed to restore power to the building by the start of business Monday, and by Tuesday it was apparent that the repairs would keep us out of our office the entire week. I was the second member of the Business Press team to arrive Monday morning. Another early riser had already discovered the situation and emailed a couple of employees but not me, thus highlighting our first communication misstep and providing the most fundamental lesson in responding to a business operations disturbance: Establish in advance clear lines of communication. Picking a point person to provide updates prevents the dissemination of conflicting information. And having emergency contact information handy makes sharing the news much more efficient.
We were fortunate that our company email was still active, but with some disasters this is not the case, so having an alternative e-mail for each employee and a home or cellphone number is essential. Storing this information online, such as in a Google Doc, makes access fast and easy. An easily accessible list of other key contacts – customers, vendors, shareholders, regulatory agencies, even the pesky media – is also advisable. Once the staff was notified, we needed to salvage what productivity we could. It was at this point that we discovered the most embarrassing and terrifying effect of our unpreparedness. While many of our electronic files had been stored offsite, some key data could be accessed only from the server in the building. Had the Mallick Tower been struck by fire, we would have been scrambling to put together the pieces and likely would have lost some crucial records.
Some businesses assign an employee to take important information home with them – usually in the form of backup tapes or other data storage devices that contain everything stored on the companies’ active servers. An easier and better solution, though, is cloud storage, which can be accessed virtually everywhere. Starting now, the Business Press is reaching for the cloud. Another preparation I wish our company had made involved our phone system. Whether because of the loss of power or a disruption of the telephone lines, for the better part of Monday callers to our office were met with a busy signal. With the phone company’s help, we eventually found a way to redirect calls to a working number we could answer. We would have been better served, however, by averting this potential problem in advance. We also learned what should have been obvious ahead of time: It’s essential to have an alternative base of operations established before a business interruption strikes. Find a place where you can get up shop for core operations if your current space suddenly becomes inaccessible. These ideas are by no means comprehensive, and do not address the many safety preparations that all organizations should make. For a complete emergency preparedness and recovery plan, go to the Small Business Administration’s website, www.sba.gov.
Chip Taulbee became president of Fort Worth Business Press in September after 10 years at Arkansas’ premier business journal, Arkansas Business.