Disaster Planning for Freelancers

While I wasn’t directly in the path of Superstorm Sandy, it still disrupted my business because many of my best clients live and work on the east coast. Several projects were delayed for the best of reasons as clients fled the storm, had emergency shutdowns, or simply lost power and Internet access.

Tragic events like these don’t hit often, but they can seriously impact freelancers when they do. Whether or not you believe that man-made climate change is responsible (a discussion that’s beyond the scope of this article), the number of severe weather events in North America has more than quintupled in the last 30 years. Many insurance companies are taking that statistic seriously, and you should too. And while there’s no completely weather-proof way to prepare, a few simple precautions can help any freelance business react and recover faster when calamity strikes.

Build a savings cushion
Disruption of your cash flow may not be the first thing on your mind in a disaster, but freelancers don’t get paid for downtime like many of their corporate counterparts. Your business should ideally have an emergency fund large enough to cover at least three months of operating expenses. If you don’t have one, start today. Find a way to put at least $100 a month into a special account just for emergencies, set it up so that the funds are transferred automatically, then don’t touch it unless you have a legitimate crisis.

Backup, backup, backup
Catastrophic events aren’t the only good reason to have backups of all your critical data, but they’re more than enough to justify the investment. You should have both on-site and off-site backups in place. If you’re a Mac user, Apple’s backup application is an excellent solution for your local copy. It’s free, so you have no excuse not to use it, and it works automatically in the background without the need for you to think about it.

The simplest offsite backup is a disk drive that you take with you when you leave the office, assuming that you don’t work from home. If you prefer an automatic solution, there are a number of online services to choose from, so do a bit of research to find the one that best fits your budget, the number of computers you use, and the amount of data you need to back up. The basic Carbonite plan is sufficient for my files, which are mostly text, but most designers I know need something more robust to handle larger files. Other popular services include Backblaze, CrashPlan, Mozy, and JungleDisk. Dropbox also offers some backup options. Plan well in advance if you sign up for one of these services—it can literally take weeks for your first backup to run.

If you’re willing to trust files to the cloud, file-storage services like Dropbox and Evernote are handy ways to ensure key files are available anywhere, even if you lose your computer or other gizmos.

Got Power?
If technology is the lifeline of your business, give serious consideration to backup power and connectivity. At the very least, have a secondary power supply for at least one computer or tablet that can run critical software. It’s also a good idea to have several places in mind where you can go to get wi-fi access. If your home or office loses power, check to see if your local coffeehouse, library, or community center is still up and running.

Mobile phone service may or may not be available (Sandy knocked out cellular service in some areas), but you’ll want to have a way to keep your phone up and running. When Hurricane Ike blew 78 mph winds as far north as Cincinnati in 2008, I used a solar backpack generator to keep my mobile phone running until our power was restored. I’ve since added a crank-powered weather radio that can also charge my phone in a pinch, though it takes a while. If you’ve got a smartphone that can charge via USB, you can also power up from a battery-powered laptop.

If you still have a land line, keep an old-fashioned phone around–one that doesn’t require power from the wall to work. Phone lines don’t rely on the electric company, so they sometimes continue working even if your power is out. I’m fortunate to live in a neighborhood where the telephone wires are underground, and my vintage 1980s phone has served me well in several blackouts.

Backup generators are expensive, but if you live in an area that gets a lot of heavy weather, it might be worth the investment.

Let’s talk about redundancy again
Having more than one way to connect to the Internet can be a real business-saver. I have a wired connection in my home office, but my smartphone can access a different company’s network. You might also consider setting up a backup email address or two with a different company than your primary ISP. Free services like Gmail are an easy way to get a second address.

Set up an early warning system
When my wife Toni realized how focused I get while working, she made me get a weather radio for my office. A good one will let you customize which alerts you get, and from where. You can get similar alerts on your smartphone using the free Weather Channel app. Look for severe weather push notifications in the settings panel–click the circle with the letter “i” to access it.

Be flexible
Disasters disrupt your clients, too. If they’re in recovery mode, be prepared to shift deadlines or make other accommodations. Don’t be surprised if delays are followed by the need for rush turnarounds. If you are able to offer help and support, do so. Being a low maintenance/high performance partner in the wake of a crisis can dramatically boost your value in the eyes of many clients.

Something else to be ready for is what economists call “perverse stimulus.” While no sane person wishes tragedy on anyone, an ironic reality is that disasters often spur economic activity when recovery efforts get underway. If an event generates sudden demand for one of your clients or contacts, it could result in an unexpected assignment, often with a quick turnaround time. Don’t seek them out ghoulishly, but be prepared if an opportunity comes knocking. Donating your services may also be a possibility if you’re directly involved in disaster relief.

Have a personal disaster plan, too
I’ve focused on business-specific planning here, but having all your non-business precautions in place will help you weather the storm with a lot more peace of mind. Check out www.ready.gov for tips on what to do before, during, and after disaster strikes.

When all else fails, forget the deadline and stay safe
Deadlines are king in our business, but all bets are off when disaster is barreling toward your home office. Take cover, seek shelter, flee the zombie invasion, or do whatever else you must to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Your clients will understand. If they don’t, get new clients.

P.S. Here’s another helpful article by David Pogue, the tech correspondent for the New York Times, “How to Keep Electronics Going With No Power.”

Tom N. Tumbusch writes copy that creates action for creative agencies and green businesses. He’s a regular contributor to the CFC blog and publishes a free writing tips newsletter each month. His tiny solar-powered corner of the Internet can be found at www.wordstreamcopy.com.

5 thoughts on “Disaster Planning for Freelancers

  1. Pingback: Disaster Planning for Freelancers | Creative Freelancer Blog « caramovaned

  2. Patrick Fultz

    I was in the path of Sandy and the nor’easter and was without power for 11 days.

    I can’t say enough about Dropbox during this crisis. We have an enterprise account for up to 5 users with a terabyte of space. We store all our critical files there including all WIP (work-in-process) and archive files. This allowed us to simply pick up the computers and move to a space with electric and internet and start working within hours.

    Plus it’s a great back-up system too. But, I’d also have rotating drives that I’d do computer by computer full system back ups incase computer systems were compromised (are were not).

    But to have access to your WIP files, all small and large businesses should consider Dropbox or other similar service. It surly save my butt.

  3. Leona Seufert

    Tom, are you ever on target about redundancy! Especially with phone service. I have an old rotary dial phone that works when all newfangled phones die! So with a cell phone, a landline and the old rotary I’ve never been without phone connection.
    And backing up data is the lifeblood of our business! I have an external drive that I use and keep in a fireproof box (work at home so there is no “off site”) when not in use. I was 11 days without power but could work at least 4 hours a day thanks to charging centers and our town’s library.

  4. Tom Tumbusch

    Thanks, Leona! Keeping a rotary around is a great idea if your local phone company still supports them. It’s worth noting, however, that rotary phones no longer work in some areas that have fully embraced the digital age. If you use this strategy, be sure to test your legacy phone before the power goes out.


  5. Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

    I just wrote about this for the Freelancer’s Toolbox column of the Society for Professional Journalists’ Quill magazine. A couple other suggestions:
    Have a laptop as well as a desktop computer (or second laptop, if you do your work on a laptop). If you can’t work at home, you might be able to work elsewhere as long as you can take your machine and files with you, and you won’t have to rent computer time or wait in line for a machine to be available.
    Get in the habit of beating, rather than just meeting, deadlines. If you’re ahead of time on work, you’ll be less stressed in the teeth of an emergency.
    Here’s to safe life and freelancing for all!