Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet
You've got no mailbox!
By Mike Gould
The following story is true; names have been obscured to prevent embarrassment and lawsuits. This all happened right here in Ann Arbor.
It was every 90's businessperson's nightmare. My client tried to contact his ISP to straighten out an administrative matter, and couldn't reach him. He tried phone, fax, and email: no response. He got in his car and went over to the ISP's office and it was empty! No people, no furniture, no servers, nothing. Nada. Zip. The ISP had gone bankrupt (GeekSpeak: toes-up mode) and fled town, leaving a wake of creditors and disconnected clients.
Think about it: no more website, no email, no connection to the Internet - can your business survive such an event? And all this happened the day I left on my vacation, of course (north woods, no phone, no email, no mouse, etc.). Fortunately, I had warned my client that their ISP was a few F keys short of a keyboard, and had suggested an alternate host - that ISP was contacted, furious Internet Voodoo Conniptions ensued, and my client was back on the air (OK, the wire) a day and a half later. (Needless to say, I had some interesting email and voicemail waiting for me when I returned.) I also just happened to have backed up the contents of all three of their websites to my computer, so we were able to get them back up quickly as well.
Tell-Tale Signs of ISP Instability
- Major lawsuit with the phone company - There was a story in the Ann Arbor News the week before about ongoing wrangling with the ISP's phone service; this is always bad news because ISP's depend on the telcos to provide that all-important "local loop" which physically connects them (and their clients) to the Internet. The telco had even turned off the connection briefly, turning it back on only after a court order.
- Bailing Clients - Several other friends and clients had told tales of unhappiness with the ISP, ranging from sudden price increases to poor service.
- Sloppy service - My first exposure to this ISP came when I went to set up a new website for my client. We danced the dance of setup, passwords, access codes, etc., then I went to upload the first pages of the new site. I promptly got an error message telling me that I had exceeded the allotted 0 Megabytes of space; I called the ISP and told him I was used to working with small files, but this was going to be a challenge. He blushed in embarrassment (I could hear it on the phone), made the correction to 10 Megabytes, and I got back to work.
Good News, Bad News
The good news is that this is a fairly rare event, of late. The Internet industry is still a young one, but a lot of shaking-out has already occurred; I can only recall one other major local crash and burn in recent years.
The bad news is that the smaller ISP's are feeling a lot of pressure from the majors (AOL, MSN, et al), and there have been articles in the press about how all the smaller Mom 'n' Pop outfits are going to crumble when faced with the onslaught of serious competition. A lot of these providers offer free email and the like, in exchange for tarting up your communications with advertising. But what will probably happen in this scenario is that the smaller outfits will be absorbed by the bigger ones, and customers will merely see a change in look and feel, not an experience of loss and feeling around for where the other end of the wire went.
So What's a Businessperson To Do?
Again, don't panic; this sort of disaster doesn't happen very often, but most of the preventatives are cheap and easy:
- Make sure that you or someone on your staff has all the data regarding your ISP; the phone number, what their address is, and a contact person who is experienced with your account.
- Back up your website! Make sure someone on your staff has a current set of all the files you have published on your site; the html files, the images, the sounds, and that expensive-to-produce dancing hamster logo that you hired that multimedia artist to design years ago. Yes, your ISP has a backup of everything on tape somewhere, but if the ISP decamps, there goes all your stuff... Also if you have paid your ISP to develop custom software (a fancy shopping cart system, for instance), try to spell out in your contract that you receive a copy of the software. My client didn't, and paid big bucks for a system that never saw the light of day.
- If email is crucial to your business, consider setting up a second back-up account on another ISP; if you get left in the lurch, you can always dial into AOL or whatever, and still reach that client in Hong Kong to clinch the CoolThingies account.
- Own your own domain name: many ISP's assign themselves as administrative contact when registering your domain (i.e., coolbiz.com) with the InterNIC (a.k.a. the Sacred and Mystical Administrators of Internet Voodoo). The problem here is that in order to move your site to another ISP (because, say, your ISP has vanished in a puff of old furniture dust), only the "technical" contact (that just went puff) or the "administrative" contact (which oughta better be you) can sign off on the deal. If your current ISP is uncooperative (or missing), you can be in a heap of trouble. Check with the InterNIC to ensure that you actually own your Internet domain - http://www.networksolutions.com/cgi-bin/whois/whois - you'll be glad you did.
Thanks to David Bloom of Fac·totem WPC for clarifying some of the above for me, and for saving my (and my client's) butt when the fan was impacted last week.
Next month: Speaking of interactive, let's do a question and answer column; send me questions, I'll dig up answers (web-related only, please; I was kidding months ago when I mentioned that little icon on your desktop there. I have no idea what it does - what happens when you click on it?) If I don't get any questions, I'll be forced to make some up, so write in today! If you are not yet online, you can snailmail me care of Business to Business Magazine.