Have you ever thought about what would happen to your business if your laptop suddenly burst into flames, all your files were destroyed, your workspace was flooded or you were struck down with Japanese encephalitis and unable to work for a fortnight?
Lost working time, missed deadlines and unhappy clients — leading to loss of earnings and damage to your reputation — as you scrabble around trying to fix the problem and sort out alternative ways to get work done in the meantime.
Nobody likes to dwell on what might go wrong. But spending a bit of time and effort to create a disaster recovery plan can save you a lot of future stress, time, and potential lost business.
Disaster recovery planning, I hear you mutter doubtfully? It sounds dull, complicated and an unnecessary distraction from doing my actual work.
You may think differently once you know that following a disaster, 40–60 percent of small businesses close permanently, and 90% fail within a year unless they can resume operations within five days.
Small businesses and freelancers don’t typically have the same level of financial reserves and back-up resources that big corporations do. And they often don’t consider how prepared they are for a disaster until it happens: 68% of small businesses don’t have a written disaster recovery plan.
But acting swiftly is crucial for an effective response to disasters, as well as putting in place preventative measures to stop a disaster turning into a catastrophe.
Creating a disaster recovery plan is easier than you think — let me show you how.
What is a Disaster Recovery Plan?
A disaster recovery plan is a document that describes steps to follow if certain problems occur. It covers back-ups, contingency plans, and processes (such as who to call).
Disaster recovery plans were first used for IT, but now often include other crucial aspects of a business such as physical equipment (more on this shortly).
We’ve all heard the old adage that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. If a disaster strikes your business, your main aim should be to get things up and running again as soon as possible.
A disaster recovery plan enables you to do this, by helping you both swerve around potential disasters and bounce back faster if they do occur.
How Do You Create a Disaster Recovery Plan?
Effective disaster recovery planning has two components: prevention and cure.
Firstly, you want to identify the preventative things you need to put in place to reduce the likelihood or impact of a disaster occurring. Then, identify the back-ups and solutions that will enable you to keep your business running if a disaster does occur.
Some problems are less extreme than others — for example, your internet service goes down for the day — but still, means unplanned downtime which costs your business time and potentially money to fix or to work around.
You can download free disaster recovery plan templates online, or just create your own simple document — 1–2 pages should be fine for most small businesses.
Let’s take a closer look at what to include in your disaster recovery plan, and questions to ask yourself to help fill it in.
Equipment and Infrastructure Failures
Identify the equipment or physical assets that are crucial to running your business, and think about what you’d do if each of them suddenly broke, was lost or became unavailable (through theft, fire, flood, accident, etc).
Common essential physical assets include:
- Phone (landline or mobile)
- Other equipment you use regularly for your work (e.g. camera, vehicle)
- Your workplace
Do you have access to spares as a back-up (your own or belonging to close friends or family)? What would you do to get the original item back in use as soon as possible, is relevant? Do you know how much replacements would cost, and how quickly you could get them?
If you can’t use your normal workplace, are there local co-working spaces you could use? Or would you rely on your own kitchen table, coffee shops or space at a friend’s?
For most small-business owners today, loss or temporary unavailability of IT systems and files would make it impossible to carry on working effectively. So you need to plan for dealing with the following problems:
- Internet service going down
- Digital files lost or inaccessible, e.g. due to server crashing, malware, ransomware
- Crucial business resources such as your website hosting or email account being temporarily unavailable or deleted
Fortunately, there are several preventative steps you can take to reduce both the likelihood of these problems happening and the extent of the damage if they do happen:
- Install decent antivirus software and keep it up to date
- Back-up your computer files regularly, both with an external hard drive/USB stick and in the cloud (so if one back-up fails, you still have the other)
- Use robust passwords and keep a secure record of them — online password management systems are increasingly popular
- Host your website with a reputable service that provides regular back-ups and good security protection
- Use a reliable email provider — most small businesses use Microsoft Outlook or G-Suite email
- Make sure you have the right types of insurance in place for your particular business, with sufficient levels of cover
- Consider whether you need to invest in any spare hardware.
Illness or Unavailability
Do you have a trusted associate or friend who could effectively cover for you if you suddenly became ill or otherwise unable to work for more than a couple of days?
Bear in mind that as well as personal illness, this could also be if a dependent or loved one becomes sick or needs urgent support from you.
Having a back-up is especially important for sole traders and freelancers, who typically operate within much narrower margins and have no colleagues to provide cover.
You may already have trusted associates or friends who work in your field who you refer work on to if you’re busy and vice versa. If you haven’t already, talk to them about the possibility of providing back-up to each other in case of an emergency.
If you don’t already have people like this in your network, set yourself an objective to identify some. Think about others in your field whose work you rate and whose integrity you respect.
Other Useful Info For Your Plan
Your disaster recovery plan should include your business insurance details — policy numbers and phone numbers to call in the event of a claim.
Think about who you might need to contact if a disaster strikes your business — this may include key clients, suppliers, and people you’ve identified as potential back-ups. You could also include useful contacts such as a local IT company.
List their names, who they are, phone numbers/email addresses, and triggers for contacting them (this may be obvious to you, but it is helpful to note in case someone else is using the plan on your behalf if you’re incapacitated).
Test and Review Your Disaster Recovery Plan
Once you’ve created your disaster recovery plan, do a test drill. (Buy yourself a hi-viz vest and clipboard if you want to get really method about it.)
Pick a morning to imagine that you can’t access your computer files or the internet. Run through the steps you’d take to be able to fix or get around this so you can do your work anyway. Try this with a few different scenarios from your plan.
It might sound a bit silly, but actually following the steps in practice will help you to identify gaps in your planning and other things you should consider adding to your plan.
Once you’re satisfied that your disaster recovery plan’s in good shape, put a reminder in your calendar to review it every six months. As your business and working practices evolve over time, your contingency plans and back-ups will need tweaking too.
And make sure you print off a few copies and store them in different places, for example, your desk, your car, your best friend’s house.
Don’t end up in a situation where the only place your disaster recovery plan is saved is on your laptop hard drive…which is no longer accessible due to a disaster.
While nobody can predict or prevent all disasters, you can take active steps to disaster-proof your business so that it won’t be knocked out by problems that arise.
Small businesses and freelancers are typically least likely to have a disaster recovery plan, yet are also most vulnerable to the impact of disasters. Investing time to create a disaster recovery plan is, therefore, a smart move to protect your business and increase its resilience to setbacks.
Putting in place preventative measures such as antivirus software, multiple back-ups, and using reliable providers, means your business is already in a robust position to avoid or minimize the impact of disasters occurring.
And identifying the software, equipment, and solutions you’ll need in the event something does go wrong means that you can move quickly in this situation to minimize the downtime for your business and resume normal service.
Your bank balance, blood pressure, and clients will all feel the benefits of this.