Disaster Proof Your Business

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

Who cares about which side of the toast hits the floor first? If it’s your toast, and your floor, then the answer is probably you. But fate may have a lot more than a dirty breakfast in store for you, especially when it comes to your business.

The disturbing fact is that those of us who run our own small businesses are more at risk than our corporate comrades. They can enjoy the luxury of choosing whether to put all their eggs in one basket, but most of us only have the one egg, and there’s no shortage of ways to break it.

Chances are that your business is reliant on one single person in one single office. So taking precautions shouldn’t just be a habit, it should be a way of life.

What If Something Happened To You?
Let’s look at the first link in the chain. You. If your business relies almost completely on your name, knowledge and capabilities, have you considered what might happen if something were to happen to you? If you catch a cold, you’ll probably be able to keep things ticking over. But what if you need to go away unexpectedly for a few days? Or need some kind of longer break? Is your system setup in a way that your partner can keep things ticking over? Or is most of it in your head? If you have a lot of time-based commitments, and rely on your business as your main source of income, then it might be worthwhile showing someone how things work now, before it becomes vital to do so. Try to imagine explaining to someone on the phone how to create a mail-merge from your database and word processor. Nasty.

As with most things in life, an hour or two of preparation could be a sound move, and time well spent. Showing your assistant or spouse how your email client works, where you store your client list, and how to process an order might take you an hour. But this could well save you a great deal of time, stress and money at some point in the future. Think ahead, and plan for the worst. Caution is not paranoia.

Your Equipment Is Vulnerable 
The next link in the chain is your equipment. 99% of the work that I do is carried out on a computer. To describe a PC as vulnerable is something of an understatement. Viruses, power-surges, hardware breakdowns, lightning, idiocy, coffee, bad-software, dog-fur, theft … the list of potential enemies is endless. No-one likes computer problems, but when they can grind your business to a halt, they’re a whole lot more important.

And let’s face it. Call me superstitious if you wish, but you know as well as I do that these problems always happen at the worst time. When’s the last time you had a system crash when you just wanted to browse the newsgroups, fire-off a letter to a friend, or test your skill behind the (virtual) controls of a Concorde? It doesn’t happen. The problems strike when you’re working. The night before I had to hand in a business proposal for funding was the first (and only) time that my Windows 2000 went belly-up. I couldn’t get it going – not through safe mode, using start-up disks, emergency repair – nothing worked.

So take precautions. A basic UPS device can protect your computer from a power surge or power-cut, and as such might well save your data one day. If you haven’t yet got one, my advice would be to put it at the very top of your list, especially if your area is prone to power fluctuations or electrical storms. Weigh up the cost of buying one against the cost of losing your data. Worth it?

Backups Are your Best Friends
Backups have become a way of life for me. I backup my critical data every night onto a ZIP disk, and use a set of three in rotation. I have never and will never miss a backup. While I’ve only had to use them four or five times in as many years, they’ve been a real life saver each time. Make it a habit. Slapping your forehead saying “I wish, I wish” after the event is no good; trust me!

On top of that I make a more thorough backup once a week onto a CD-R. Other options include FTP storage and backing-up over a network. Look into all of them. Off-site storage is also a good idea. If you’re ever unlucky enough to experience either a fire or theft, you may realise the pointlessness of keeping your backups in the same room. Sending or mailing a CD once a month to someone in your family takes minutes and costs almost nothing. If you never use the backups, what have you lost? If the day comes when you do need them, you’ll be grateful.

In terms of what to backup, it couldn’t be simpler. Imagine that your hard drive has just died, right now, and you can’t access any of the information on it. What do you wish you’d backed up? Now’s the time to do so. Setting up a good backup system and routine shouldn’t take longer than an hour or so. Doing so could save you days of work, chaos and lost income in the future.

If something critical happens to your main machine, and you can’t fix it yourself in minutes or hours, what then? Having a separate “spare” machine might be worth looking into. It doesn’t have to be a top of the range powerhorse; an old 486 will be enough to at least deal with emails and process orders, while your main machine gets fixed. If you already have one or more in use, then you might want to look into how usable they are as a spare machine. Do you have some way of transferring your backup data into them for instance? A parallel-port ZIP drive is an odd shaped lifesaver, but it does the trick. A little forethought can make the difference between an inconvenience and a full-blown disaster.

There’s also no shortage of software to make your life easier. Personally I swear by PowerQuest’s Drive Image, which allows me to make a complete image of the whole of my hard drive. If my system dies unexpectedly and can’t be fixed, I can use it to restore either a just-installed fresh Windows 2000, or my system as it was one or two months ago. This should take no more than half an hour – think how long it takes to format your hard drive, install the operating system, then all your software. Time and money well spent.

Is Your Web Connection Reliable? 
The next link in the chain is your web connection. Almost all my work involves some use of the web. Take away my internet connection and I’m blind, deaf and soon to be broke! Because of this I have a permanent high-speed connection with one of the main phone companies in Finland. I also have a separate account with a different server, that can use my old 56 modem on a regular phone line. It costs me all of $9 a month, but if/when my permanent connection goes down, I can still work – a little slower, but it’s certainly usable. I look at it as a very cheap form of insurance.

A few months ago I experienced a real-life nightmare. My website went down one morning; the site was unavailable, and email was getting swallowed-up. That’s right – not bouncing, but somehow vanishing. So anyone writing to me assumed I’d received the email but never replied. My server assured me that the problem would be fixed within a few hours. It wasn’t, in fact it still wasn’t fixed a week later. This problem cost me dearly in time and income. It won’t happen again.

I now have a backup site, on a different server. My main site is at www.softwarepromotions.com, but if this ever goes down for any length of time, a letter will go out to all my clients, and everyone who has ever contacted me, telling them to use the www.software-promotions.com site and email addresses. The site itself isn’t yet finished but a basic version is already in place, and the email is fully functional. If I ever need it in an emergency it’s there, and I even have the letter ready to go out. I pay around $4 a month for the web space, taking advantage of the low price and reliability available from SWREG.ORG. If I never have to use it, I’ll be happy. If my main site goes down, it’ll be business as usual, and this time I won’t lose any income. Again, a very cheap form of insurance. Be prepared.

A few final common-sense tips. If you have a large number of downloads each day, don’t rely on one single location for your files. If they go down, you go down. Also make sure you have the contact details for your server. If your server’s site also become unavailable, you won’t be able to find their emergency phone number on their site either. Keep these details somewhere safe.

Think through every single problem that could happen, and work out exactly what you’d do if each should actually occur. While the chances of your office being hijacked are fairly remote, the chance of you experiencing some sort of server or hardware problem are high. If the website is a critical component of your business, and your business a main source of your income, then you don’t want to wait until the server goes down before looking for a new host and registering a domain name. Be seen, be sold.

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.