I have a private investigator friend who is just starting out. We email back and forth on a regular basis after he reached out to me upon reading a former blog post I authored. A couple of weeks ago, he admitted that he is feeling lost as to which direction to take and needs to brainstorm in order to get things going. I remember feeling just like that when I was first putting things together for my business. It’s still overwhelming at times. I think it’s normal to, at some point, feel directionless, floundering, and overwhelmed.
So this post is for all the newer private investigators out there, as well as anyone who is considering this honorable profession. It also wouldn’t be a bad read for anyone who is getting their own business started, regardless of profession. Everyone works differently, processes differently. This is just what worked for me. Maybe you can at least take away a few helpful hints, words of encouragement, or a bit of motivation for yourself and your current situation.
When I first started throwing around the idea of becoming a licensed private investigator, I initiated my quest by researching what I could online. I wanted to know more about the profession, what it takes to become licensed, startup costs, and specialty areas. Personally, I am the queen of lists, so I made a few. I had several lists going and finally consolidated them into one. I worked it and reworked it multiple times. I still have a working list today. It gets shorter, but then somehow gets longer again. I think it will always be that way.
I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’ve had to backtrack because I didn’t do something right the first time. There are things I would do differently if I could go back and do them all over again. There are pieces of advice I would give to my past self if I could. Unfortunately, I can’t do that, but I CAN give these pieces of advice to you so maybe your startup will go even smoother than mine did.
So you want to be a private investigator. What now? This is what I would do, mostly in this order, as your life and your schedule allow:
- Research everything you can about the profession to determine if you really are still interested in becoming a private investigator. Determine what it takes to get licensed in your state so you can assess if it is even feasible for you.
- Join social media if you haven’t. Find the top influencers in your profession. Follow them. Friend them. Seek them out. See what they are talking about. You will learn so much.
- Start reading books about private investigating to get a better grasp of what it takes, specialty areas, job outlook, startup costs, etc. Keep reading them as you work your way down this list. I also recommend taking copious notes as you go.
- Find a mentor. Find someone or multiple someones who will guide you along the way. It’s imperative to have someone you can call or email with questions because you will have many.
- Create a name for your business.
- If you are definitely on track to pursue private investigations, find an attorney who will file your articles of organization, certificate of organization, operating agreement, and any other entity documents required by your state in order to get an EIN for your business.
- Start developing a specialty or specialties. Decide on the services you will offer your clients. Once you’ve determined what exactly it is you will be doing, start putting together processes for every aspect of your business, including “how to’s” or checklists for EVERYTHING. You’ll have to work on this step as you continue down this list.
- If you are certain you are going to pursue licensure, shop around for liability insurance. It seems backward, but a lot of states require you to obtain proof of liability insurance before you apply for licensure.
- Get licensed in your state. If your state doesn’t require a PI license, I’d get one anyway in the nearest state you can, if it’s feasible. Some states require you to be a resident, so be sure to check out any limitations before you take the time to get started.
- Hire an attorney to create a legally binding contract for your clients.
- Subscribe to PI Magazine. Once you do, you can go back and read through past issues. This is an invaluable resource and will answer questions like - What should I charge my clients? What specialties are available? What training is available to me? Who are the industry leaders? Where can I find a mentor? What books are recommended by other private investigators? Where can I get report templates? What software is available to me? Which professional associations are the best?
- Join a few professional associations. If your state has one, join it. Look for another few to join.
- Create or pay someone to create a logo for your business.
- Create a business card, but don’t print too many. You’ll probably change it after a bit more research, reading, and experience. But I would create one now, especially before you go to your first conference.
- Attend a conference. I actually attended my first conference a few months before I became licensed. It was so worth it. I learned valuable information, met other private investigators, got great advice, and found a wonderful mentor.
- Create or buy letterhead.
- Create or buy an investigative report template.
- Create or buy an invoicing system.
- Sign up with a merchant that allows you to accept credit cards.
- Create a website or hire someone to create it for you. But don’t go live with it until you are ready for business.
- Determine if a city business license is required of you where your office will be located, then get one if needed. (I have a home office, so I have no advice about renting office space).
- Set your rates. Decide if you want to charge an hourly rate or work on flat rates. Perhaps you might even do a combination of the two.
- Determine how you want to handle contracting with other private investigators. I am of the opinion that you should always help a fellow PI out and work on some kind of a 25%-40% scale. This means if another PI needs your help with a case, only charge them 60%-75% of what you normally charge.
- Create social media accounts for your PI business, but don’t go live with them until you are ready for business.
- Shop around, then sign up for a few databases. Do your homework. Make comparison charts to determine which ones will be a good fit for you. Ask around to see what other private investigators are using. Here is a great resource: https://www.pinow.com/articles/2087/13-investigators-share-what-databases-they-prefer-to-use
- Officially open for business. Ask your local chamber of commerce for a ribbon cutting ceremony. Contact local media for exposure.
- Create a marketing plan, advertise, and keep advertising.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. If you have other suggestions that you think should be added to my list, feel free to leave them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.
Additionally, keep in mind, every single step above requires endless research. In order to get where you want to go, you’re going to have to research via the internet, books, social media, mentors, blogs, other PI websites, professional associations, state licensing boards, discussion groups, forums, conferences, etc. This blog post is a nice start. As always, best of luck to you and don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have further questions or comments. I’ll help in any way I can.