Protect your Crown Jewels

Disaster recovery isn’t just for big business, and intellectual property isn’t just about copyrights.  How can you protect the essence of your business from loss due to a disaster such as fire or flood?

While writing about how UPC, SKU and style numbers relate to each other, I spent a lot of space on protecting your records, so we will start with a separate blog entry for protecting your intellectual property. No, I am not going to talk about non-disclosure agreements, copyrights or patents. I am talking about backups.

Let’s pretend you are fully insured. In the event of fire, flood or other disaster, your ever-generous insurance company will pay out for the complete replacement of all your lost working space, material, equipment and even goods-under-production (very unlikely, best-case situation!). With check in hand, you can’t buy: your patterns, your style and pattern piece index, your grading rules, line sheets, style sheets, accounting ledgers, inventory receipts, order paperwork, notes of discussions with vendors and buyers, sketchbook or portfolio of designs in progress, Rolodex or little black phonebook with key names and numbers, browser bookmarks, or any of the other information that defines your small business.

These things are your intellectual property. IP is not restricted to “neat” or “unique” stuff; it very much includes bread-and-butter operational data for your business. Money can’t replace these things. You may not have sufficient time to reconstruct these things from scratch after a disaster. Even the most generous insurance payout may not enable you to get your business running again; you may have to start from the beginning.

So, the first step is to identify your IP. What is it, which money can’t buy, that you need to carry on your business? I gave some suggestions in the 2nd paragraph, but that’s not an exhaustive list. How and where is this intangible stuff represented? On hanging oaktag? On letter paper? File folders? Loose on your desk? In a notebook? In a card case? In a photo album? In a computer? In a cellphone? In many cases, you will be able to fit your critical IP into one office wardrobe (for hanging patterns) and one medium to small filing cabinet (for everything else). If you work entirely with digitized patterns, including designs in progress, you don’t need the wardrobe.

While you can certainly reduce the risk of a particular disaster (don’t locate in a floodplain or earthquake zone; locate in an inherently fire-resistant building with regularly tested active fire suppression; etc.), you have more control and probably more bang for your buck by making a copy of your IP and keeping it in a separate location. Let’s talk about separate locations for a bit. It is safest (if scariest) to assume total obliteration of a workplace due to a major disaster. So a separate location should be a different building. If you are subject to wildfires, floods or earthquakes, that building should not be on the same site, even if it is hundreds of yards away. A safe deposit box in a bank is secure but a poor choice because it is expensive, inconvenient to access regularly, and nowhere near big enough. If you don’t work out of your home, storing a copy of your IP at home is an obvious possibility. The smallest locker at a self-storage facility could work nicely. Swapping some storage space with another small business (doesn’t have to be someone in the same industry) can work out well, if regular access is convenient to both parties.

OK, so we’ve talked a bit about what and where. Now for how, and then how often.

Patterns on oaktag need to be traced, but you can trace a set of related patterns onto one uncut piece of oaktag and then hang the one piece or store it in a flat file. The pattern pieces don’t need to be cut unless or until you need the backup. However they do need to have a complete set of marks and labels, in the proper colors.

A copy machine is the obvious choice for copying normally sized paper items. With office all-in-one scanner/printer/copier machines available for under $150, and with phone/fax capability added for under $250, you don’t need to drag things to Kinko’s to make a copy. [Relevant but sad anecdote: when the construction manager for my shop building died in a plane crash a year ago, I had to take a small office copier to his home to make copies of the critical project paperwork, since things could not be removed from his estate. I had no idea what subcontractors he was working with until I got access to his papers.] If you do manual ledger bookkeeping, you can copy recent pages out of a ledger book almost as easily as loose letter pages. You can copy business cards or Rolodex cards many at a time.

With commercial reproduced items (brochures, line sheets, etc), you should have a copy of the original design materials that went to the printer. It would be a good idea to set aside one or two copies of the printed item as well.

With art portfolios, reproduce the contents as well as possible. For photos, print additional copies. For sketches and manual artwork, you may have to use a large-format copier at a copy shop. You don’t need to buy an expensive portfolio case to store the backups; that can be purchased if and when needed.

For contact information stored in cellphones, Blackberries, PDAs, and similar devices, I recommend you synchronize them with a computer, then export the data from the device application on the computer for backup.

For data on your computer, there are two strategies. Either backup the entire contents of the computer, or backup your specific IP. There are disadvantages either way. If the contents of your computer are small enough to make a complete system backup painless, do it that way. Otherwise, for each relevant application, you will have to figure out how to export the data the application is managing. For applications like illustration programs, that’s not a problem as the program produces a nice self-contained file. For databases, contact managers, and the like, you may have to experiment with the Export or Save As options to produce files that can be saved away and later restored. By the way, we have a saying in the software business: Backups never fail; the problem is always with the restore. Your disaster preparedness plan is not complete until you have actually tested bringing a backup copy of your data into your application to make sure all the pieces are actually there.

Oh, and when you do make a copy of something, remove it from the workplace immediately. Leaving it on your desk makes it worthless. Put it in your car, or at least in your bag to take home, right away. Getting a copy to the separate storage location is less important than removing the copy from workplace location.

Finally, when or how often do you do this? Normally I would say the absolutely key thing is to make this a regular practice. A great plan that you don’t execute is worthless. A mediocre plan that you execute every week is worth a great deal! Realistically, you will have weeks when nothing is happening and days when you get things you want to protect immediately. So, I recommend a quick weekly review of your IP. If something has been added or changed, make a copy of the new data. This is especially true for things like ledgers. You don’t have to copy the whole thing, just the updates. If you get a make-it-or-break-it order or personal contact or pure-genius style idea, copy it right away.

Somewhere between once and four times a year, you should consolidate and thin out the copied IP in the separate storage location. If it’s all still relevant, keep it. If some style has been retired, but you might bring it back, keep it. If it’s paperwork for customers you no longer do business with, or patterns for styles that are so-last-century, pitch it. If it’s accounting ledgers for years that have been tax-filed and forgotten, pitch it. You have a limited amount of space and you should be keeping just what you need to operate your current business.

Now in the event of a total catastrophe, you should be able to take the insurance check and reestablish your physical workplace (yeah, very generous assumption!) and rapidly unload the contents of your saved IP into your new desk, file cabinet, computer and pattern rack. It will still be a traumatic, disruptive event, but at least you are still in business!

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  1. sarah says:

    Our industry is different but we still have a lot of similar physical items (drawings and designs and so forth) to back up. If it helps at all, here’s what I do.

    Anything that can be copied I scan instead and save as pdfs; in our case, I can get 99% of what we would need to get going again into digital form. And I back it up (daily, with automated backups) in two places: first, to a small external HD that sits on my desktop and which I pull when we travel so we can work on anything, anywhere; second, to my account at Amazon, which I access through Jungle Disk. It’s a bit of work to set it up, but once you’re done, it takes care of itself. Just make sure you know how to access your storage space at amazon through another computer — those passwords need to be accessible or all that prep is no good!

  2. Kathleen says:

    Not to make light of your post Stuart but I have so much crap around that I sometimes think my only solution is a good fire. Done well, it could be a new beginning. Like fires in the southwest, the natural plants come back.

  3. Kiran Bindra says:

    I would highly recommend using ‘Carbonite’. It is a very affordable service where all your identified files and folders are automatically saved when you’re online. The best feature is the restore feature. I recently switched computers and it was a breeze to get all my files transferred to my new computer, including their excellent customer service.

    If you are anything like me, backup is not the first thing on your mind amidst 100 other things you have to take care of as a business owner. Get carbonite and sleep easy at night.

    And no, this is not a paid post :-)

  4. Lesley says:

    weird…I just had a dream a few days ago that my house was burning down along with all my business stuff (I work out of my home) but the focus on the dream turned to the firemen questioning every member of my family separately as arson suspects. I kept hoping in my dream that my 9yr old wouldn’t tell them how disastrous the house had become (thanks to my business taking over) and then surely they would think we set it on fire on purpose to start over! I thought the message was “need to clean the house” but maybe it was also”need to copy and remove valuable information and place it elsewhere.” ha ha – but very timely and astute! thx

  5. Catherine McQ says:

    Excellent post, Stuart. Other resources that even the most generous insurance check can’t replace include the knowledge and skills of you and your employees. Cherish and protect yourself and the people who work with you. Make sure everyone knows how to escape to safety, or where to shelter when it is safer to stay put. Make sure everyone knows how to contact the fire department, ambulance, police, your building manager, or anyone else you might need to reach in an emergency, and where to find the first aid supplies. Your insurance company and local government agencies such as the fire department or office of emergency preparedness can help you learn how to be prepared for storms or other emergencies.

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