We caught up with Carolyn Usinger, founder of disaster-recovery communications company ReadyConnect.
Why did you start ReadyConnect?
I have a passion for helping businesses succeed. My earliest careers were involved with foreclosures and bankruptcies. After those experiences, I wanted to devote my life to helping businesses succeed. I started by creating a series of #business #startup kits to help people create their businesses easily, with the California Chamber of Commerce.
While I was doing that, my house and home office burned in the 1991 Oakland fire. It changed my whole life. I began to look at disasters through new eyes. I learned that 50% of local businesses don’t survive a disaster. Of the ones that do, another 50% are gone within 3 years. Disasters have a very long-tail effect of small businesses.
What are some of the things we don’t understand about disaster recovery?
Even well-meaning attempts to help can backfire. For example, a truckload of bottled water or a load of plywood may be donated to the community, and undermine sales that could have gone to struggling local businesses. Without accurate insights into what a community needs, efforts to help often don’t hit their intended target. ReadyConnect facilitates communication, coordination and recovery. It pulls the community together. As we say, “Don’t face a disaster alone.”
During a disaster’s immediate aftermath, consumers don’t know which businesses are open, which are closed, which may have supplies that they need. Employers may have difficulty finding out the status of employees. During power outages, cellphone batteries run low as people make multiple calls to family, friends, and employers.
I began doing research through chambers of commerce and started to create a toolkit. As I learned more about the needs of businesses following disaster, that tool morphed and grew. It became a resource to help business and people connect to each other.
Since then, the number of natural disasters and the intensity of the destruction has magnified. ReadyConnect was created to make recovery a reality, supporting local businesses and individuals with a community network. My goal is to provide toolkits to every community in the country, to enable them to start recovering on Day 1 instead of starting from scratch.
How does your product work?
Our toolkit is hosted online for business and we offer a mobile #app for end users. We’re beginning with Chambers of Commerce, so every member business receives an online toolkit at no charge, and their employees and families can purchase as many mobile apps as they wish. Anyone can purchase the mobile app, so we expect that our subscriber base will grow organically through these personal connections. If you’re connected, you want your friends and family to be, too.
The businesses create disaster plans and the employees who have the app can build their own family disaster plan. One of the features people appreciate most is that we keep their contact lists up to date and enable them to have fast, efficient, battery-preserving “one button” communication with all those people. But it is much more than a communication tool. Perhaps the most important element of ReadyConnect is that we help businesses #market themselves to the Ready-Connected Community in the aftermath of a disaster. They will be able to notify consumers of crucial supplies in stock. If they’re scrambling to re-open, they can let people know their re-opening date and sell vouchers to keep cash flowing. This is absolutely critical, because many businesses that survive that first year following a disaster will eventually succumb to poor sales. The disaster doesn’t end when the media coverage does.
How does this differ from what Facebook is doing?
Facebook offers a “safe” notification, which is a simple way to notify friends and family of your status–if you’re all Facebook subscribers. Now imagine, following a disaster, trying to remember who you have reached and then having to still communicate by phone or text with the individuals you’ve missed. Another serious issue is that Facebook and other social media sites are rife with scams and rumors, even well-meaning misinformation. ReadyConnect provides forums that are vetted by local community leaders. Users can ask questions and get reliable answers. We’re a source of trusted information. We can start disseminating information before the disaster center opens five days after the fact. We provide a platform on which to organize the recovery.
We recognize that not all disasters are big, natural disasters. A fire or broken pipe can close a business, too. So we’re offering ReadyConnect as a tool for “everyday” recovery.
What are some challenges you’ve faced?
People don’t want to think about disasters. And it’s human nature not to prepare—it’s called “denial”. So we are approaching “preparation” with tools that businesses can use every day, as well as during these epic events. For example, a tool to “broadcast” updates to your employees if you’re experiencing a sudden closure, that enables them to easily view work schedules and cover shifts.
There’s the obvious problem of government agencies being consumed with major infrastructure issues such as repairing roads or levees or putting out fires. But when it comes to recovery, we find that different agencies are “siloed.” There is not good integration of resources. Disaster centers are not enough. Without clarity about a community’s needs, agencies may not be providing the right help. We have built this company to deliver what FEMA is asking for, a “Whole Community Approach.” Unless you own your own business, you can’t understand the urgency of keeping your doors open. A weeks’ closure can be the difference between life and death for many local businesses. Folks in government don’t experience this kind of traumatic job insecurity, so their ability to relate to this situation can be limited. Meanwhile, a #small business owner may be paying salaries to employees even when they have no sales and revenue. Many sacrifice themselves to keep their teams going, expecting that recovery will be faster.
In speaking with cities, we’ve learned that they’re willing to spend $30,000 on a reverse 911 system yet don’t understand why they should invest 10% of that cost to enable their community to recover. That has been eye-opening. Chambers “get it” because they’re part of the business community, so they’re our target market for the rollout.
Where is ReadyConnect now?
This is a very exciting time—we’re launching in five communities in California: Palo Alto, San Mateo, Half Moon Bay, Encino and Culver City. We’re working through Chambers of Commerce because they’re already connected to community businesses and they get it. Ironically, businesses receive the least amount of support after a disaster, and yet healthy businesses are key to the recovery of the entire community. ReadyConnect is filling a gap, and we’re very excited about the future.