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Planning to survive a business catastrophe – how to write a disaster recovery plan

September 25, 2011

With all the excitement of starting and running your own business, it’s easy to overlook what might happen if it all goes wrong.

A disaster could strike your business at any time, in any form. What if your main sales person was lured to an aggressive competitor, you lost your data, or your building was destroyed in an accident? It’s rare, but it happens.

Here are seven simple steps to a writing a simple but powerful disaster recovery plan:

1. What could happen?

This is the most creative part of the process. You need to imagine every possible setback that could affect your business. It’s easy to think of the big things, like fire and burglary. But often it’s the small unexpected setbacks that can do the most lasting damage.

Who are your key staff, and how will you replace them? How is your data secured? Which suppliers are you most reliant on? What if you couldn’t get into your premises for a week?

Make a list of everything that could happen, then split events into 3 or 4 relevant categories according to their impact (i.e. major catastrophe, minor incident, etc). It’s easier and more fun to do this brainstorm in a team. If you don’t have employees, then ask your partner or friends to help you.

2. What will it mean?

Some of these events will bring your business to its knees, others will just be an irritant which could affect your cash flow. Clearly working out the likely impact of events is essential, as this will affect the quality of your recovery planning.

3. Advanced preparation

For each category of emergency, put together a rough idea of what you can do. For example, if you are denied access to your premises for any reason, identify an alternative place you can trade from.

Or if your main supplier goes bust, where else can you get stock? Be creative and flexible, but also realistic and think things through. If you have to drive abroad once a week to buy stock, what are the cost and personal implications?

Some of the items you identify will need immediate action. If you spot a risk from having all your data stored in only one location, then sort out online or offsite backup immediately. Don’t be tempted to add it to the “things I really must get round to” list, as you could regret putting it off down the line.

Disaster recovery experts say at this stage you are planning for three things:

a) Ensuring continuous operation of your business;
b). Achieving a rapid restoration in the event of an emergency; and
c). Recovering – a return to normal operations as soon as possible.

There is an established disaster recovery industry that will help you plan and prepare. For example, some serviced offices will guarantee emergency office space in return for a monthly fee.

4. Plan clear communications

A vital element of any disaster plan is to ensure everyone knows what’s happening. Make a list of people you will need to speak to when a problem crops up. Not just the obvious ones like your employees, customers and suppliers.

What about your bank? If they know you are in a difficult situation, they may extend overdraft facilities.

Ensure it is clear who should represent the business to the emergency services and media. And who should do it if that person is unavailable?

The easiest way to communicate a message to a large number of people quickly is through your website. Ensure you can add a message or edit your site remotely, even if your normal computers have been lost. Access to email will also be key.

5. Write a plan

The key here is KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. Your plan should be short, to the point, and easily understood by anyone who has to execute it.

It’s impossible to plan for every eventuality. So your plan should be a set of clear guidelines and resources for the person tasked with keeping your business running, especially if that person isn’t you.

6. Keep multiple copies of the plan

As you are watching your building burn down, it won’t make you feel better to know that the only copy of your emergency plan is inside. Keep copies in safe places in multiple locations, including your home and maybe even in your bank’s vault.

Many business leaders that have prepared for a disaster never go anywhere without their laptop, including taking it home each night. That way they can guarantee they always have the latest company information with them.

7. Review every quarter

Like any plan, your disaster recovery plan needs to be reviewed regularly. Growing businesses change regularly, and an out-of-date plan can be as much use as no plan.

Schedule reviews into your management meetings to ensure they happen.

Remember to get professional advice from a qualified disaster recovery expert before taking any action. Don’t rely purely on information contained in this article.