How a Disaster Recovery Plan Can Save Your Business

By Vangie Beal | Posted October 16, 2012

The likelihood of something bad happening to your business is very high. That's what Vinny Troia, a certified ethical hacker, disaster recovery specialist, and founder of Night Lion Security wants every small business owner to know. 

Troia believes that many business owners have fallen into a trap where they think "this can't happen to me," but disaster recovery and business continuity planning is very relevant to every small business owner. 

According to Barbara Goldberg, owner of Back On Track Solutions, a disaster recovery plan is something every small business should have, but most don't.  It's unfortunate because, in the face of a disaster, a small business can go out of business in an instant. She says that more than 25 percent of small businesses that close after a disaster simply don't reopen.

Even a Simple Disaster Recovery Plan Can Be Successful

In Joplin, Missouri on the afternoon of May 22, 2011, John Motazedi, CEO of SNC Squared stood in the debris field where his office building had been and surveyed the damage. For as far as he could see there wasn't a single thing left standing — including his own office building.

"After the tornado, I could do a 360 degree turn and there was nothing left standing. The tornado was so strong it blew the bark off the trees and peeled asphalt up in parking lots," said Motazedi, describing the devastation.

 small business disaster recovery planning

John Motazedi, CEO of SNC Squared, captured this post–tornado view from what had been the site of the company’s office building.

The tornado that ripped through Joplin on that day left a mile-wide path of destruction behind.  News reports put the death toll at 116, making this the deadliest single tornado to have hit in nearly 60 years.

Five hours after the tornado leveled his office, Motazedi said all ten of his employees were accounted for, and the IT services company was back up and running.

Within 72 hours of coming back online, SNC Squared had all of its clients in a position to conduct business. This was critical because 90 percent of the company's clients are doctors who needed access to patient medical records in the wake of the tornado.

Motazedi said that SNC Squared was saved by the company's 10-page disaster recovery plan and the foresight to keep a data backup offsite, which was stored in the basement of Motazedi 's home at the time.

Expert Tips for Creating a Disaster Recovery Plan

Goldberg firmly believes that any small business can put together a disaster recovery plan without spending a lot of time or money -- even if it's just to get you through small events that most businesses will face at some point, like a power outage or a server crash.

Small businesses with no plan at all can make good use the resources offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). On the Ready.gov website, you have access to simple checklists and a disaster preparedness planning tool that you can tailor to meet your specific business needs. You'll also find sample exercises with walk-through scenarios to help test your plan.

If you're looking for more ideas on how to create your disaster recovery plan, the individuals interviewed for this article offer the following sound advice and best-practice tips to help small businesses get started.

Tip #1. Pull Contact Lists Together

One important task is to keep details of your major business contacts. Goldberg recommends you list contact information for all partners, vendors, insurance agents and, of course, your staff.

This proved to be an important lifeline for SNC Squared. The company kept a list of mobile phone numbers for all staff members in addition to cell numbers to contact spouses and next of kin. As part of the company's disaster recovery plan, Motazedi created a group in Exchange that would allow him to send one email to a known address in the event of a disaster.

"I was able to send one message that in turn sent a text message to everyone saying that we'd had a tornado, our offices were destroyed and that we needed everyone to check in," said Motazedi , recalling how difficult communication was following the tornado. "With one message I could communicate with all staff and significant others so we could make sure that we accounted for everyone."

Because cell towers were destroyed, text messaging was spotty, but Motazedi said it worked well enough given the severity of the situation.

More Small Business Disaster Recovery Tips

Tip #2. Keep Backups On and Off-Site

Regular data backups are another important part of your disaster recovery plan, but you need more than a single backup at the office.  Troia says that an onsite backup will help you during some disasters (like a failed hard drive), but when faced with a fire or employee theft it may be useless.  For SNC Squared the off-site data backup was critical to the company's successful recovery.

Troia recommends that you create data backups on a regular basis and invest in software to automate the process. A good program will automatically create a backup at a specific time each day, and you can set many programs to verify the data and send a text message alert when the system detects a problem.

Once the backup process in place, Troia says businesses need to create a backup of the data back up and then store it off site. There are different options to do this, but he says most small businesses do find cloud storage to be an easy and cost-effective way to secure data away from the office.

Tip #3. Determine and Test Your Business Vulnerabilities

Motazedi says businesses should determine what two or three things would make it difficult to run the business if they were suddenly gone.  Once you know your weak spots you can develop a plan­ to mitigate the risks where your business is most vulnerable.

It's also wise to plan ahead for potential disaster recovery failures. Motazedi recommends that you play devil's advocate and come up with all the scenarios that will cause your plan to fail. When you know the threat and understand the risks to your business should a failure happen, he says it's much easier to recover from it.

Remember that having a disaster recovery plan may be a futile exercise if you don't update the document and test the plan on a regular basis. Testing can range from making sure that employees know where fire extinguishers are to shutting down a server to validate your recovery plan.

Tip #4. Work with partners and vendors in advance

Long before a disaster strikes, consider working with your partners and vendors to discuss what the expectations are and know if vendors will provide emergency equipment—such as workstations or a server — or if you will have immediate access to a line of credit.

SNC Squared does this but, since the tornado, Motazedi has taken preparedness planning one step further. He's actually worked out contracts with some partners and clients that say each company can work from the other's offices for a small daily fee should something happen.

Even a home-based business or entrepreneur can scope out their town to determine what's available for emergency office space and know ahead of time who to contact and where to go if disaster strikes, says Goldberg.

Remember: Even Small Disasters Can Devastate a Small Business

If SNC Squared didn't have that little 10-page disaster recovery plan when the tornado hit, Motazedi   believes the company would not have succeeded.

"We lost fifty percent of our clients, and if we hadn't been able to get back up we wouldn't have gotten our clients back. Since they're doctors and need access to patient health and medical records, they probably would have been sued. We probably would have been sued." he said.

It's important to understand that it's not always a large natural disaster that you need to plan for. All the experts we spoke with for this article — including Motazedi who experienced a tornado — agree that it's the small things that most likely will happen to you: fire, a power outage, flooded offices  or a failed hard drive with no backup.

And it is the simple things that will force you to send employees home and hang your closed sign. The processes you outline in your disaster recovery plan will help you get up and running after any type of disaster, of any size and magnitude.

"The one thing I've always said is that if you're not prepared you're going to be surprised," said Motazedi. "And I'd much rather be prepared than surprised."

Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been covering business and Internet technology for more than a decade. You can tweet with her online @AuroraGG.

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