Assuming you avoid tragedy, a major storm can help many small businesses--even mine.
Make no mistake about it, this storm was devastating. No one wants to go through this kind of thing. Millions have been without power, billions of dollars of damages have been incurred, and dozens are dead. Some people and businesses will be recovering for months. No one can fault the forecasters or government officials for the dire warnings they made beforehand. They were right.
But I'm going to try to paint a good side to a devastating event like Hurricane Sandy: this may not be much consolation for those who have suffered (and I truly do sympathize), but considering that this huge storm hit an area where 25% of the country's population resides, it could've been even worse. Approximately 60 million people were affected by this storm and most everyone emerged from it safely.
My business is located in Philadelphia and we really dodged a bullet. The damage here was less than other parts of the country. Even so, Philadelphians are not completely new to big storms. We usually have one or two major snowstorms a year and the occasional Nor'easter (and I love calling it that because it makes me feel local and authentic, like an old-time native to the area, which I am). Depending on where you live you likely have to deal with your own set of recurring natural disasters be it hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, grunge rock, or the Cubs. But, assuming you avoid tragedy, I believe that a big storm like Sandy can actually be a good thing for many small businesses--even mine.
Everything's at a standstill.
For starters, the hurricane gave entrepreneurs a perfect catch-up time. For two full workweek days, most businesses in my area (including mine) were pretty much shut down. Or, at the very least, barely operating. Which provides a great opportunity to catch your breath and catch up with work. It's a unique opportunity too. Most of us like to spend weekends and holidays with our families or just relaxing. Working is kind of an intrusion. But when else do we have the opportunity, in the middle of the week, to do work without any intrusions whatsoever or any guilt or reservations about the work taking away from our leisure or family time? And you know all other companies are in the same boat so you're not concerned that you're missing something. Plus your customers and vendors outside of the region treat you in a special way because they don't want to bother you in the middle of a natural disaster--which can provide great cover for you when you're paying bills a little late or have fallen behind on an order. So you can use the time to clean up the office, write that marketing piece you've always been meaning to write, update those job descriptions for your employees, fix that printer that's been annoying you for months or maybe just....think.
The cloud is cool.
Your employees can be catching up from their homes too. Because in 2012 many of us are just beginning to benefit from...the cloud. Since last year, my applications and databases are hosted by a third-party provider on their server which, for all I know, is somewhere in Malaysia. But I don't care. And neither do my people. They go home and, as long as their broadband connection operates, they can keep doing their work. And they can stay at home to be with their families, clean up any mess, avoid the risk of travel too--and all the while checking in. So even as the storm approached and people hunkered down, we were able to respond to inquiries, schedule appointments and process orders. Many of us are kind of relieved that we don't have to worry about loss of data due to potential damages to our offices because all of our data is now located way out of harm's way and more likely than not being backed up and secured way better than we are. Plus, I have a few outsourced developers and contractors not located in the area and they can keep doing their thing on my cloud-based applications without any interruption because our offices are closed. During a hurricane the cloud has become mission critical.
You can talk about the hurricane.
A natural disaster, like a hurricane, is interesting. It's a story. It's something to talk about with our clients and prospective clients. It's a reason to reach out to customers in the area and just ask if they're doing OK. People appreciate that. Even if you've run out of ideas for talking to that guy who's been sitting on your proposal for the past month, you've now got a reason to call. The hurricane is a topic of discussion when chatting with prospective clients too: people want to hear how you're doing and what it was like. Natural disasters bring people together and make them feel more connected. If told the right way, it humanizes you and your business. Some clients have real-life stories to tell after going through a big weather event. They have employees who pitched in to help someone in need or got lucky when that tree almost damaged the warehouse. I've seen clients turn those stories into their own, low-key conversation pieces for when they talk to their customers. People like to hear this stuff.
Show your good side.
A hurricane is a great opportunity to demonstrate you care. No joke, I just got an email from Citibank that says: "If you have been impacted by the storm, we are ready to assist with access to cash, fee waivers, and more that you may require. Bottom line, we are here to serve you each and every day, but in particular, during this challenging time. If you need assistance, please contact customer service and we will work to help with your individual needs." Touching, isn't it? But these guys are no dummies. They see an opportunity. By offering to help, by showing their concern, by being sympathetic to their customers' needs they're building goodwill. They're showing what good guys they are. Yes, it's all marketing. And I wasn't born yesterday. I'm pretty sure that the Citibank customer service rep sitting in her cubicle near Bangalore doesn't really give two hoots about my problems. But let me wipe that tear from my eye and give them credit for the thought and the effort. And let's learn from that too. A natural disaster gives you the opportunity to show your company's good side to its customers and community.
A welcome reality check.
The hurricane also gives entrepreneurs a sense of appreciation. And gratitude. We are so busy with all the minutiae of running our businesses. We worry and stress about collecting receivables, getting that new customer, paying that big invoice coming due. We spend all day running around, chasing that dollar, fretting about cash flow, looking over our shoulders at the competition. And then a huge thing like this happens. And we're forced to stop and hunker down with our families. We see the enormity of a storm like this and we realize just how inconsequential we are. We get the opportunity to use the word "hunker" twice in one essay. We watch others face floods, loss of property--even loss of life--and it suddenly dawns on us how immaterial our problems are. We're just small business people, making a living, acting out our lives. And long after we're gone there will be generations of others doing the same things, dealing with the same problems, and facing their own natural disasters.
OK, I have to admit something because I'm feeling pretty guilty. So here goes: My Sunday night flight from a conference I'm attending was cancelled so I've been riding out the storm here...in sunny Boca Raton, Florida. It's so easy to be philosophical from a thousand miles away!
Read more recent articles by Gene Marks:
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.