In February 2001, I was working with my team on a client project with an impossibly tight deadline. We were all deep in thought, carving through the work before us. Suddenly, the ground began to shake. A little at first, then more and more. Our office was in the basement of my home in Port Orchard at the time, so you can imagine what it was like when the now-famous Nisqually Quake decided to swing by for a visit.

I still feel a twinge of guilt about the whole episode, for as the ground shook, my only thought was to save the company. Instead of yelling, “Get under your desks” to my staff, I yelled, “Grab the computers! Hold on to them tight!”

Not my proudest moment. But it did point out an important point about running a business. While the safety of your employees should always be paramount, saving your company is important, too.

I’ve spent most of my professional life preaching about the importance of disaster preparedness. Given that September is Disaster Preparedness Month, it seems only natural that I talk about it now.

A disaster – whether caused by nature, humans or technology – is not a matter of if, but when.

Yes, when. It doesn’t have to be a flood of biblical proportions or the “Big One” earthquake experts keep warning us about. It can be an employee who is silently skimming away all your profits one cent at a time, the unexpected death of the owner from a massive coronary or an out-of-control semi that just crashed through your storefront.

Not preparing for the inevitable can be disastrous for your business and your bottom line. Studies show that following a major disaster, 25% of businesses in a community never reopen. In rural communities, the number of businesses that close permanently can run as high as 60%. The economic consequences are almost unimaginable.

The numbers would be far less alarming if business owners took the time to do some basic disaster mitigation. As I always say, “You don’t need to fight a fire by yourself if you know where the fire extinguishers are and know how to use them.”

True, you can’t stop a natural disaster from occurring. In many cases, you can’t prevent one caused by humans either. But you can reduce the likelihood that some events will occur and you can almost always control how it affects your business, if you have a disaster plan.

Some of this planning is very basic. For instance, backing up all your data into the cloud every day ensures that your most valuable asset – data – will still be there when the crisis has passed. You can always replace desks and computers and even inventory and machinery. But without all your data and records, you may never fully recover.

Backing up data and keeping duplicates of bank records off-site is a no-brainer. But what would happen to your business if it suddenly floods? Say the sewer main outside your company breaks in the middle of the night and now your business is three feet underwater. How do you let employees know whether or not they should come to work in the morning? How do you let your customers know you’re not open? How do you notify suppliers to hold off on their next delivery?

The best time to prepare for a disaster is before one hits you. Time is indeed the luxury in this regard as you can put systems, procedures and policies in place that 1) will protect your employees, 2) protect your business and 3) allow you to return to relative normal as soon as the crisis has passed.

Every potential crisis requires a series of responses, from the fairly straightforward to the highly complex. Knowing what these steps are and better yet, writing them all down in a manual that you update from time to time, will allow you to move through the crisis and emerge on the other side. Preparation combined with practice is the key to avoiding those dreaded “deer in the headlights” moments when you’re in the midst of chaos.

Unfortunately, most business owners put their all into creating the business, never thinking about the fact that a single event that was entirely predictable and preventable could bring their company to its knees. I’ve seen it many times over the years. Seemingly healthy businesses that never spent a dollar or a minute preparing for the worst, wiped out in the blink of an eye. They were so busy thinking about growing their business that they forgot to protect it.

In my role here at Commerce, I get to help small businesses prepare for such a possibility. Our online guide When Trouble Strikes: A Crisis Planner for Small Businesses, walks you through the entire process, from identifying the many crises that can affect your business to creating a checklist for getting operations back to normal after a crisis passes. It is based on my more than two decades of crisis consulting yet is scalable enough that any business – even a one-person operation – will find some of its tools useful in weathering any disaster large or small.

I’ll say it again. A crisis isn’t a matter of if, but when. A smart businessperson knows how to plan for it, prevent it if possible, make the best of it if not, and come out the other side of it quickly and successfully. Disaster planning is the best investment you can ever make in your business, your employees and your local community.

In the Emerald City, wondering what the next crisis opportunity will be,

  • Robb