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What You Can Do, in the Face of the Boston Bombings

What happened at the Boston marathon yesterday should only remind you that violence is a fact of American life. Prepare--and be more determined than ever.
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Another bomb goes off in America, this time in Boston, killing three and injuring 130.  So what's new?  Not much.  At least, not in this country.  The Boston Marathon bombing is yet another in a long series of criminal incidents here.  Of course, September 11th was the worst.  But before that, in 1996, a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics killed two people and injured 111.  In 1993, a nitrate-hydrogen gas enhanced device at the World Trade Center in New York killed six and injured more than a thousand.  In Oklahoma City, a powerful explosive in the Federal Building in 1995 killed 168 people and injured almost 700.  Want more?  Oh, there's more.

Theodore John "Ted" Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber, engaged in a nationwide bombing campaign between 1978 and 1995 killing three people and injuring 23 others.  In 1927, a guy blew up a schoolhouse in Michigan, killing 28 elementary school kids and six adults.  In 1910, a bombing at The Los Angeles Times killed 21 people and injured 100.  Seven years before that, a bombing on Wall Street killed 28 people and wounded 300 others.  In 1886, an explosion at Chicago's Haymarket took the lives of several people.  Various terrorist attacks by the Ku Klux Klan were responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people in the 15 years following the Civil War.  And the Civil War--well, that killed more than 600,000 Americans.

The fact is that if you want to lead a business in this country you can expect violence.  American history is littered with murders, riots, bombings, terrorist attacks, and other aggressive acts.  What happened in Boston this week should only remind us that this is a fact.  And if you run a small business like me, it should remind you how to be prepared--and determined.  Here's what I mean:

You need a disaster plan.

Terrorism will always be a part of your life; you need to be prepared for the economic shocks.  As tragic as it was, the bombing in Boston was small and only killed three people.  But in today's media-obsessed world, the news will continue to reverberate around the country, and affect our national mood.  The U.S. economy is fragile; it's built partly on facts, partly on performance, and partly on psyche.  A large-scale terrorist attack could once again shut down airlines, close borders, and bring shipments to a standstill.  Even a smaller attack, like the one in Boston, may discourage people from contentedly buying products, going to events, or visiting the mall for a while.  Are you ready for this?  Can your business withstand a short term interruption in cash flow?  If a loss of half of your revenue for a few weeks could threaten your existence then you need to make changes in your model.  A sudden, catastrophic event could trigger this.  What is your disaster plan?  What's mine?

Make sure to have extra cash on hand.

A strong business also has reserves.  That's cash.  Or, at least, access to cash.  Nothing reveals a company's poor management more than how an unexpected event affects its ability to stay in business.  After Sept. 11th, which struck a few buildings in a relatively small area of New York, many airlines needed government bailouts to keep operating.  Insurance companies teetered on insolvency.  Small businesses in the tourism, travel, and entertainment industries reeled.  The economy overall significantly slowed.  Any experienced business person will tell you that over the course of a company's lifespan you'll ultimately suffer from a recession or two and you'll also likely lose a couple of major customers along the way.  In the past 20 years, I've experienced both.  And if U.S. history says anything, it's that terrorism in this country will also continue to shock you, your customers, and the economy.  You need cash reserves to absorb the shock and see you through.  You must not overspend when times are good.  You cannot rely on your insurance company to come to the rescue.  You must always sit on enough cash to keep your company operating, even through the blackest of days.  Your family, employees, partners, customers, and suppliers are relying on you to think ahead.

Constantly be cautious.

A terrorism attack like the one in Boston reminds you to always be vigilant in business and life.  And I'm not just talking about keeping a wary eye on your fellow airline passengers, looking out for unattended bags, or alerting the police when something doesn't seem right.  All of that is very important stuff.  But by vigilance, I mean having a certain level of cynicism about the world.  The smart business people I know have a higher level of distrust for others than most.  Too much distrust, of course, is unhealthy.  But a healthy level of skepticism is critical for running a company.  You need to always be evaluating the risks of doing business with others, asking yourself "what if" something goes bad with that new customer, critical supplier, or key employee.  What if that guy is not who he appears to be?  Things are never as safe as they seem.  You can't rely on others to look out for you.  Even the police, the CIA and Homeland Security can't stop disasters from happening all the time.  You need to be responsible for your company's fate.  And, unfortunately, you need to always think of the worst that people who you rely on can do.  Because if you don't, who will?

Don't miss a new business opportunity.

Americans will be forced to adjust to the new reality caused by this latest attack.  There will be more video cameras and, like many European cities, fewer trash cans in the streets and in the train stations.  There will be even more government scrutiny and higher taxes to support their activities.  There will be debates over sequesters, spending, and budget cuts in the wake of new homeland security demands.  Businesses in the protection, security, and other related industries will benefit.  Others may find themselves losing funding or incurring additional costs as a result.  As I write this, entrepreneurs are hatching their plans to capitalize on this need.  This is not greed.  It's an opportunity to serve a potential market demand and help others in the future--not to mention, help fend off future attacks.

Be more determined than ever before.

Lastly, but most importantly, the smart business people I know also realize this: things are never as bad as they seem (and things are never as good as they seem either).  Over the next few weeks, you'll be inundated with the news and aftermath of the terrible bombing in Boston and its affect on the victims, their community, and the country as a whole.  But life goes on.  The U.S. is a relatively free society and with that freedom comes the risk that one lunatic will trigger a bomb in a trash can and innocent people having fun will get killed.  But business moves forward.  You'll stay cynical and measure your risks, but continue to take risks.  Don't hide inside.  Don't stick all your money under the mattress and cower.  Pause for a moment, reflect on what's happened, mourn for those who suffered, learn from it, and move forward with even more determination.  Business people know this will not be the last time.  Prepare for it, and accept it.

IMAGE: Flickr photo courtesy of J. Hutchins
Last updated: Apr 16, 2013

GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group

Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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