With hurricanes hitting the US, and more on the way, this seems like a good time to talk about Disaster Recovery, and how it affects small businesses with very mobile employees.

First, the distinction needs to be made between disaster recovery (DR) and data backup.  DR is a full company solution, which involves not only data, but also communications, operations, client relationships, etc.  Backup is merely about data stored on computers.

It is also important to point out the a hurricane is not the only disaster to consider.  In addition to natural disasters, there are fires and floods within buildings, computer viruses, key personnel loss, crashed hard drives, etc.  Many of these scenarios are much more likely than a natural disaster, and need to be planned for all year.

A full disaster recovery plan involves:

  • data backup AND restoration
  • Internal communication – if we can’t get to the office, or have to evacuate, how do we get in touch with each other.
  • External communication – if we can’t get to the office, or have to evacuate, how do we get in touch with our clients and vendors, and how can they reach us.
  • Operations – how are we going to pay bills, send invoices, receive money, provide services, deliver products in the even of some disaster
  • Business continuity – who keeps confidential passwords, files, bank accounts, etc.

Data Backup and restoration

A small business with very mobile employees is going to have a good amount of data on laptops.  This is obviously great for mobility, but a DR nightmare.  This adds a whole new “disaster” to plan for – loss and theft of laptops.

Laptops with vital information should be encrypted.  This will make it extremely difficult for anyone other than the user to see data on the laptop.  An application like TrueCrypt will work fine.  Encryption does slow the performance, so only vital folders and files should be encrypted, rather than the whole hard drive.

Laptops also need to be backed up daily.  For small businesses, a service like Mozy will work fine.  It is very inexpensive, and the backup and restore processes are pretty easy.  The initial seed backup can take quite a while, depending on the amount of data to backup, and the speed of the Internet connection.

Other data to backup includes email, databases of clients and products, accounting files, and other necessary applications.  If email is hosted elsewhere, it should be getting backed up.  Check with the email host to make sure the email is being backed up.  If email is vital to your business, you need to make sure you are with an email service provider that is backing up, and will restore quickly.  Other applications and files that might be hosted on a server onsite need to be backed up regularly also.  Mozy will work for most of these files.  However, some types of files and applications, such as AS/400 need to be backed up to service providers who can handle these more robust applications.  Some of these include EVault and AmeriVault.  In addition, local IT service providers might have solutions.  These are more expensive, but you are paying for the level of service.  The seed backup will be faster, and the companies will work with you to get your data restored asap after a disaster.  If you are using a bookkeeping service that is hosting your accounting files, you need to make certain they are being backed up.

All backup should be done nightly at the very least, and should be offsite.  This way your data is going to a Tier 1 data center, which has redundant power, redundant Internet connection, and even more redundant backup.

Internal Communications

In the case that employees can’t make it to an office (or you don’t have an office), everyone needs to have access to vital phne numbers for communications.  One option is to have a DR website which is only visible internally in the event of a disaster.  This way home and personal mobile numbers are visible to employees only in the event of an emergency.

External Communications

You need to make sure vendors, clients, and prospects can get a hold of you during a disaster.  This can be done via email and/or phones.  If your email is hosted by a service provider, and they have a DR plan in place, your email should still be working.  Now you just have to get access to it.  You should be able to access your email from any Internet connected computer, not just your own.  If you use Hosted Exchange email, make sure everyone knows how to access Outlook Web Access to check their email.  If you use some other form of email, make sure everyone knows how to access their email via the web.  One overlooked part of accessing this email is passwords.  We usually have our computers remember our passwords, so we sometimes forget them.  Make sure everyone knows their passwords.

As for phones…if you have a phone system in the office, it might not be accessible during or after some disaster.  In this instance, a DR website would be a great tool also.  You can have contact information for vendors and clients that are trying to get a hold of you.  You can use this to release mobile phone numbers to be used only in this event.

If your phone system is hosted, all you have to do is make the phone calls forward to some other number, such as a mobile or home phone.  You probably already have this enabled.  Voice mail should also be accessible.

If you only use mobile phones, there really isn’t a problem.  Just make sure you have plenty of battery power, and possibly a spare battery.

Operations

How will you continue your operations?  That question is too difficult to answer here, as it will change for every company.  My recommendation is to diagram your processes for receiving bills, paying bills, sending invoices, receiving payments, servicing clients, shipping products, and support, and determine how these processes can be performed without the office, without the server, without all personnel.

Business Continuity

Like Operations, business continuity is a company-specific solution.  The main thing to keep in mind during some disaster, is that you might not have access to everyone.  Therefore, if there is some process that relies on a single person, efforts need to be made to address the fulfillment of that project by someone else.  An example might be writing checks, or completing payroll.

With some forethought, and a very good understanding of your own processes and business, a great disaster recovery plan can be created.  This will not only help you sleep better at night, but also give you some very good insight into the strength, or potential weak links, in your business.


For some reason, bookkeeping is not always thought of as a business function to outsource.  I think business owners equate “doing the books” to company control.  Who wants to give up control of their company? 

This, of course, is not the right way to think about it.  Doing your own books takes time away from other business-generating activities, such as business development, sales, customer service.  It is, therefore, costing you money.  Not only is is costing you growth opportunities, but chances are you’re not an expert at accounting.  So, when tax time comes around, you’re paying your CPA extra to re-do the books.

Properly kept books also come in handy when trying to attain funds, either debt or equity.  They help when establishing vendor relationships, and they are absolutely necessary in some sort of liquidity event. 

There are several options available when it comes to bookkeepers. 

Your CPA has the ability to keep your books.  Unless they have a department devoted to it, however, chances are it is cost-prohibitive. 

There are outsourced bookkeepers in virtually every area, and they usually charge by the hour.  The price will range from $40-$70 per hour.  These even come with their options, and you have to identify what works best for you.  Some bookkeepers will come to your office, and enter bills, invoices, receipts, etc. into your accounting software, print checks for you to sign, etc.  This is a great first step for those business owners who are reluctant to give up control.  Keep in mind, however, that you will probably be paying for travel time to and from your office.

Some bookkeepers require, or give you the option, to bring everything to their office.  You go regularly with bills, invoices, statements, etc.  You most likely leave it all there, and the bookkeeper does the books.  You’ll probably go there regularly to sign checks, and pick up checks and deposit slips to take to the bank.

One issue with this scenario is where your accounting software resides.  If the bookkeeper is keeping your file on their system, you won’t have access to it in the case that you need it.  If a client or vendor calls and needs to know about the status of their account, you won’t have that information at your fingertips.  There is the option to email the accounting file back and forth, but you have to be very careful as to which version you’re working on.  You don’t want to make changes to a previous version of the file, send it back to the bookkeeper, and all their work inthe interim is lost.  Another problem with emailing the file is that the file sizes get to be large, and difficult to email.  they end up taking space on email servers, and sometimes even get flagged as spam.

To combat the issue of the accounting versioning, there are several services that will host your accounting software, allowing both you and the bookkeeper to work on the file, and not need to send the file back and forth.  These services include: ITX, Quickbooks Hosting.  There are also other hosted accoutning software applications – this article from ReadWriteWeb details some of these apps.

For the more tech savvy, there are services that combine the bookkeeping with the hosted Quickbooks.  One such service provider is Growthforce.  Growthforce offers extreme efficiency by, not only hosting Quickbooks, but also downloading credit card and bank statements straight into Quickbooks.  They pay your bills online, and really limit the time you need to spend dealing with any bookkeeping issues.

The best way to determine if these services are valuable for you and your business is to really pay attention to the amount of time you spend dealing with bookkeeping issues.  If that time could be put to use in growth opportunities, it’s probably time to start looking for an outsourced bookkeeping option.


On Virtuality

26Aug08

I created a post a couple days ago regarding questions to ask if you want to be more mobile yourself, or create a more mobile, virtual office.  Now is such a great time to start or grow a business.  The technology exists to outsource so many business processes and operations…which leads to more efficiency.  When entrepreneurs can focus on their core business, without having to be swallowed up by non-core activities, the business can grow. 

If I can be anywhere, and be confident that my phone will be answered, my bills paid, my invoices sent, my HR issues taken care of…I can give 100% of my attention to growing the business.  Far too often, however, I see business owners that are afraid to give up control of administration.  Most business owners don’t start a business thinking “I can’t wait to pay bills, choose health insurance plans, and clean up my books.”

Many entrepreneurs think they can’t afford to outsource these functions.  However, what is the opportunity cost?  How much more business could you earn if you spent all your team developing new business?  How much more time would you bill? 

My feeling is that every small business needs to put a plan in place to move toward outsourcing as much as possible.  The plan is necessary to make certain data security, business processes, customer service are taken into account.  Only when non-core functions that can be outsourced, or virtualized, are, small businesses can grow to and past their full potential. 

Future blog posts will discuss some of the functions that can be outsourced, and how to go about the planning.


With the power of laptops and the proclivity of wireless Internet access, more companies are trying to “go mobile.”  However, being more mobile means different things to different people, and each companies will have their own reasons and their own challenges.  Following are some things to contemplate before jumping into a large laptop purchase.
 
Why do you want to be more mobile?
• Are you looking to do more work from your client sites? 
• Do you think it your employees will be more productive? 
• Are you trying to cut down on the need to commute? 
• Do you need to travel?This is an important question because the answer has an impact on the technology you choose.  If the idea is to always be on the move, you will need to think about very mobile laptops with long battery lives.  They will also have to be a little more able to handle the shock of being thrown into bags, in and out of the car, and possibly even make it through some spills. 
 
What do you need to do your work?
• Do you have certain applications you need to access? 
• Are they on a server or on your PC? 
• How vital is email?
 
This question will determine the need for a server.  It will also help determine which laptops to purchase, and the need for a firewall and/or router.  If there is a server-based application (i.e. timekeeping software) you use, you will need to make certain the server is configured to allow access to the application from outside the firewall.  The speed of your internet connection will also partially determine the speed at which users can access the application.  If email is vital to your work, you will need to have multiple manners of accessing email.
 
How technologically capable are your users?
• Are your users comfortable using laptops? 
• Are they computer literate enough to have multiple log-ins? 
• Will they have the ability to be supported remotely?
Countless hours of productivity are lost when users cannot access their network because they can’t use a VPN.  Also, if they are the types of users that require someone to physically fix issues, mobility is not an efficient option.  Mobile users have to be comfortable and creative enough to get work done even if there is some issue.
 
What security requirements do you have?
• Do you have regulatory requirements governing your IT security? 
• Do you keep vital client information on laptops?
In answering this question you determine the level of management needed on each laptop, and on the network access.  Keep in mind every laptop is an entry point into your network.  If someone can hack into a laptop, or even steals one, they may gain entry into the network.  Also, a lost, stolen, or hacked laptop can put sensitive client or company information at risk. 
 
How will your users access the Internet?

 
This question is somewhat answered by the answers to the previous questions.  Using free wi-fi hotspots is not necessarily the safest option.  Operators of hotspots are making their networks open, which is inviting to hackers.  They can sit in a coffee shop and access other laptops on the network.  Also, wi-fi hotspots are not always reliable.  If one of your employees absolutely has to get online, and the local coffee shop’s Internet connection is down, you are out of luck.  A mobile broadband card and plan from your mobile provider might be a safer, more reliable option.
 
New technology has afforded us the ability to be more mobile, and more efficient.  However, a mobile workforce is not a situation to jump into blindly.  It requires an investment of capital and time to make certain it is the right move for you.