technology disaster planning for small business :: the top 5 questions to answer for your “if I’m hit by a bus” file

Technology is a tool :: use it wiselyGood engineers  plan for failure.  So do good attorneys.  Perhaps this is why "disaster planning" is an area I tend to spend a lot of time on.   One planning approach I utilize to start businesses thinking about this topic involves an imaginary "hit by a bus" scenario.  Basically, the question asked is "how well positioned will the organization be if  [insert name here]  is hit by a bus tomorrow and everything they carry around inside their head is suddenly lost to the business?"  The real answer to this question can have a tremendous impact upon family members, employees, customers, investors, and many others.

Business owners and entrepreneurs work with us because they want to build and grow their business.  Disaster planning is rarely high on their priority list -- especially when most answer the "hit by a bus" question with platitudes such as "we'd be fine" or "all our key info is written down somewhere."   The more a business grows, however, the more important such planning becomes.  The earlier you can make "disaster planning" a part of normal operations, the better positioned you will be for sustainable success (not to mention the added value it provides should you ever wish to raise outside capital or sell your business -- good planning across all aspects of your business reflects overall competence and stability, both of which will positively influence prospective deals).

Technology is at the core of most critical business operations for just about every company (think point of sale system, accounting system, company website, customer contact information, work product, etc.).  It also tends to be taken for granted.  For this reason, it is a prime candidate for my "hit by a bus" list.   I know the headline promises the top 5 questions.  To paraphrase Captain Barbosa from "Pirates of the Caribbean," however, they're really more like guidelines.  It's all about embracing the process  🙂

  1. What do you own and use?   These days, many businesses use a combination of hosted services and purchased software to run their operations (not to mention the hardware and network connections that make it all accessible).  There should be a central place key players can reference to determine what all these "things" are, along with a general description of the unique configurations established for your business.
  2. Who do you rely upon?  Once you've identified what you've got and how it's used, you need to identify the vendors and service providers that help keep things going  (along with all their contact info, including any data access or security information needed to engage their services).  Access to copies of service agreements and similar contracts is also important.
  3. How do you take care of it?   Like a car, your technology infrastructure requires regular maintenance to be reliable.  Hopefully you've got an outside vendor or internal person (or both) taking care of things for you.  Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual checklists that detail what's being done, how it's being done, when it's being done, and by whom are ideal.  It's also good practice to assure checks and balances are built into your procedures so this information is updated as your business grows and changes.
  4. How is access and security managed?   Federal and state regulations governing personal data privacy and protection are ever expanding.   External threats (such as viruses, spam and hackers) need to be guarded against, but so do the ones from inside your business.  For many small businesses, key administrative ids and passwords are kept by one person (if at all).   Losing this information, or failing to manage the level of data access provided to vendors and employees,  can compromise your business in more ways than one.
  5. Are we prepared to recover?  To answer this question adequately, you need to answer a number of related ones first :: Do you regularly back-up data (including all workstations and laptops -- information assets that usually get lost in the shuffle)?  Are your back-ups stored off-site?  Who can retrieve them and how?  What software and hardware is used to back up the data?  Is the same combination needed to restore your data?  Are regular attempts made to restore all or parts of your backed up data to assure your system is working as intended? 

As I recently mused on another topic, successful business leaders manage risk.   Each business needs to recognize and assess its key touch points in order to make intelligent choices about how to best manage risk within the context of available resources (time and money).   Hopefully, this short list can help move you further down that path.

entrepreneurs & lawyers :: a strange but necessary marriage

Many would suggest the characteristics that make for a successful lawyer are completely opposite those that make for a successful entrepreneur.  Successful lawyers are perceived to be risk-averse, follow convention, and strive for predictability.   Successful business leaders, on the other hand, are viewed as pursuers of risk, strive to be different, and navigators of chaos.    While there are always exceptions to such sweeping generalizations, it's fair to say they are generally true in large measure.

Ironically, building a successful business requires a blending of these polar opposites.  What many entrepreneurs fail to realize is the degree to which every business decision they make can influence their ability to succeed.  It starts with making a choice of legal entity for your business, and continues through to the details you cover within the contracts your business signs.   For this reason, involving an attorney early in the process of building your business (and integrating their input into your key business decisions) is truly critical. 

Unfortunately, with most attorneys and firms still charging for their time by the hour, it is usually impractical to follow such a course.  And even if your attorney's billing practices or your financial resources allow for you to build legal insight into your daily operations, the "character" differences between entrepreneur and attorney can often wreak more havoc than it might otherwise prevent.  The key to avoiding this latter pitfall lies in both you and your attorney's ability to properly "manage" each other's roles.  

The first step to effectively managing this professional relationship lies with making an effort to understand the mindset of each role.  Starting with their first class in law school, lawyers are trained to identify, plan and prepare for worst-case scenarios.  We learn the law by studying terribly bad situations that have wound up in court (the reality, however, is less than 1% of claims, disputes and "bad results" ever make it into the courtroom).   Our training is exclusively focused on eliminating risk, and finding ways to maximize "damage control" if and when things do go wrong.

Entrepreneurs appreciate that a successful business is not built on eliminating risk.  We realize too many customers, partners, and opportunities would evaporate if we "wasted" time tweaking every potential deal to eliminate risk.  Too often, however,  the business owner will embrace unnecessary risk in the pursuit of the deal. 

So how do you successfully blend this marriage of opposites to make for a successful business?  By realizing that just like any other aspect of running your business, it's up to you to manage the relationship so can maximize the value of what you're paying for.  To this end, some key considerations:

  • The breadth of expertise a fledgling business needs to get off the ground is expansive.   Entrepreneurs and small business owners have to "do it all," and so do your lawyers.  Here is just a small sampling of the legal issues we managed for the last new venture with which we worked :: tax laws, consumer privacy regulations, electronic commerce regulations, contract law, employment law, intellectual property law, real estate law, and securities law (to name just a few).   Few small firms or solo practitioners can capably cover this entire breadth of services.   Large firms can, but their interest in working with smaller companies may be limited.  Their costs won't be limited.   An expert familiar with individual attorneys and firms in your area will pay for their weight in gold.
  • Remember, it's all about managing risk.  Your attorney will be committed to doing everything necessary to eliminate risk.  He or she can't help it -- it's practically genetic.   Don't stop in your tracks whenever your attorney fills the air with all sorts of cautionary statements.   Don't let them spend countless hours working on ways to eliminate every last potential for trouble.  Use them to evaluate where the major risks lie, and specifically direct their activities to managing those (and only those) exposures.

There's more we could say, but it all comes down to striking the right balance between managing risk and accelerating your business objectives.   Successful business leaders understand how to do this.   It's not easy for the uninitiated, but well worth the effort. 

And now for our shameless plug :: if you want help navigating this process, it's one of the many services we bring to our client companies.  Give us a shout 😉

Jack Speranza is an attorney, software engineer and entrepreneur.   For 15 years he has helped his companies and clients strike the right balance between risk and reward by weaving good business, good technology and good law into new services and operations.