Thursday, September 9, 2010

10 Tips to Keep Your Business Running When Technology Fails

By Winton Churchill

When you put your skills on the global market, you depend on your laptop and other technology to be reliable.  After all, it’s your life line to the people you work for.  And when your technology fails—for instance, if your laptop crashes—clients can get mad, vendors wonder if they’ll be paid, and your cash flow can freeze up.

How quickly you recover can depend on factors you wouldn’t normally consider in your home country.  Here is a personal example to show you what I mean—and some valuable tips you can learn from it.

When good laptops go bad…

One day last month I returned from lunch to find that my new laptop, loaded with fully expanded memory and all the latest software, was on the fritz.  I assumed the problem was simple to fix, but after five-and-a-half hours talking with tech support, the voice on the other end of the line suggested that I send it in for repair.

It would be tough to be parted from my laptop.  But I consoled myself with the fact that I had bought a super-duper warranty; I could probably have the laptop fixed and back to me in a week or 10 days.

"Not so fast there, mister," said the company rep.  “If you bought the laptop in the United States, it has to be repaired in the United States.”

But I was in Mexico…Thinking there must be something wrong with this policy, I asked for a supervisor, who told me that of course my laptop could be repaired in Mexico.  My vendor was proud that his company was international.  And because the laptop was a portable product, likely to travel all over the world, the company would be more than happy to repair it in Mexico.

The supervisor gave me the name and phone number of a case manager to speak with in Mexico and said that he was sure my problem could be remedied in short order.

Next morning I called the designated person in Mexico, who told me that under no circumstances could my laptop be repaired at his facility.

The solution?  Not easy. I would have to ship my laptop from Mexico to my “address of record” in the U. S. at a cost of $75.  My brother-in-law in the U.S. would then have to repackage the box, because the computer company can only accept returns in their special packaging…then he would wait the week to 10 days for my laptop to be returned to him, repaired.  At that point my brother-in-law would repackage my laptop and pay another $75 to send it back to me in Mexico.  Here in Mexico the laptop would go through customs, where it would probably be assessed a duty— because after all it is brand-new—of $200 to $300.

So for about $450 in shipping and customs duties, I could, in fact, have my laptop repaired “free” under my $300 super-duper extended warranty.

That $450 is also about how much it costs to buy a low-end laptop that would meet most of my needs. 

Three lessons learned

I learned a lot from this experience:

1. Keep an extra laptop handy for emergencies.  Fortunately, I had followed my own advice and it paid
off.  I was able to keep working without dramatic interruption.  My fall-back computer is four years old and runs XP for its operating system.

2. Consider buying your laptop and other office equipment in the country you’ll spend the most time in.  Most computer manufacturers only honor warranties in the country where you bought the computer. 

3. Always keep your computer information backed up adequately.  Of course it may still take hours to
load files and frequently used applications onto your backup computer.  (It takes me between 12 and
15 hours to get my other laptop fully loaded.)  If you can afford it, add a “remote” backup—a system
like Mozy ( will let you back up over the Internet.  The advantage to remote backup is
that it protects you if your laptop is stolen or damaged beyond repair... you can usually revive your
laptop right away.

Three tips for staying in communication when your computer doesn’t

Out of this situation also came a number of enhanced recommendations on how to stay in communication—and in business—when your laptop crashes in a location where you can’t easily get service.

Tip #1.  Use a phone application that you can access from any compute.

I have two applications that I use extensively to communicate with the outside world. The first one is Skype, the popular VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) program. It’s one of the easiest to get up and running again after a computer crash. This is because Skype combines software that it installs on your
laptop with software that runs on its website.

Skype keeps your address book on the Skype site. If your laptop is demolished, you can quickly go to any other laptop, log in to your Skype account, and be talking with people listed in your own address book in a matter of minutes.

At a minimum this lets you tell them that you've had a problem, and that you may be delayed in getting back with them.

Tip #2.  Use an e-mail application you can access from any computer.

The other application that I use extensively is my e-mail.  My computer comes with Microsoft Outlook, which I have used.  This program is a little problematic if you have a computer crisis.  You have to reinstall the program from your original Microsoft discs, plugging in a really long serial number that you may not have with you when your laptop crashes.  You then have to configure your e-mail accounts with very specific and confusing information to get them working properly.

Four tips for buying and repairing your equipment

1.  Be sure to get your operating system installation disks when you buy your computer.  Particularly in the U.S., laptops often come with system disks “pre-installed”— and you never get the physical disks. You’ll need these if you ever have a major computer crash and need to reinstall your operating system. (And yes, you may be told to simply “make your own copy” of the disks—but who ever does?)

2.  If you plan to buy your laptop or other office equipment in the U.S. or Canada and have it shipped to Mexico, try to buy it at least three months before shipping it.  This gives you time to replace or fix it under warranty if it proves to be a lemon. 

3.  When buying printers, scanners, photocopiers, and other office support equipment in Mexico, check to see where the repair service centers are.  There may be only a few in the country.  If so, you’ll be paying to ship your equipment potentially hundreds of miles for repair if it breaks down, even if it’s under warranty.

4.  Get the name of the most-respected local computer geek—there’s sure to be one, no matter where you live in Mexico—and keep his name on file.  If your laptop crashes, he may be able to get it running again faster and more cheaply than sending it to the manufacturer for repair.

Because Microsoft office mail is so hard to configure (and is localized to your laptop), I have moved to a free Google mail (Gmail) account.  The beauty of Gmail is that everything lives on a Google server someplace; I can go to any PC that has a network connection, log in, and get my e-mail.
When I first looked into Google mail (, I hoped it would help me do pretty much everything I did with Microsoft Outlook without the hassle factor.  I have been pleasantly surprised that Google mail seems to meet all those needs and more.  My biggest concern with Google mail had been whether I would be able to keep the domain names that I use for my different groups of e-mail correspondence, or whether I’d have to use the “” suffix.  Fortunately, I've found that I’m able to send and receive mail from my various domains just as I did before.

In addition, Google mail’s basic e-mail functionality includes a whole lot of nifty tricks that help you stay on top of e-mail conversation threads, due dates, task lists, and other things that Microsoft mail doesn’t do very well.

Tip #3.  Use a calendaring program that helps you share your schedule well with others

One feature of Google mail that is especially exciting is its calendar function. My wife Debi and I have
tremendous problems keeping our calendars synchronized as we travel the world. With Google, we have both been able to maintain separate calendars—but still view each other’s calendar when we need to.

Finally, keep in mind that your computer inevitably will fail when you least expect it—and that you’ll spend at least 10 to 15 hours putting it back together again.  Minimize your disruption by having some work-around solutions—like a back-up computer and some web-based applications (like Skype and Gmail)—that lower your dependence on your laptop.
Editor’s note: Winton Churchill is the author of “17 Web-based Applications That Will Keep You Going When Your Computer Unexpectedly Quits,” a free mini-report that will keep you sane when your computer hardware decides to die. The report is available by sending an email to: