A Colorado investigator in a rural county makes the case for forming working alliances with other PIs.
Since opening a PI business in 2015, I occasionally check the state’s regulatory website for newly licensed investigators in my area. I live in southwest Colorado, which is geographically large but sparsely populated. For perspective, there are only 15 licensed private investigators within a 100-mile radius of my office.
I feel fortunate to be one of the few full-time private investigators in the county. All the others work part-time. Some of them are retired from first or second careers. Unlike me, they don’t depend on steady income from their PI businesses. The rest have second jobs to supplement their PI incomes. Several other investigators opened and closed a PI business here since I started.
While constant private investigation work can be difficult to maintain anywhere, there are advantages to being a PI in a rural county of fewer than 50,000 people. One of the benefits is getting to know, or at least trying to get to know, every PI in the area. I do this by inviting each investigator to join me for a short meeting at his or her favorite coffee shop. Except for one PI who declined, so far every other investigator accepted my offer.
I have a similar initial conversation with all of the men and women who agree to meet me: I ask about their experience, training, skills, and fee schedules. I also briefly describe my experience, area of specialization, and billing rates. Then, I steer the conversation toward my belief that we should become allies in addition to remaining competitors.
Responses to that statement range from emphatic agreement to vehement disagreement to total disbelief. For the naysayers, I offer what I think is a convincing explanation: In an area with such a small number of licensed investigators, each one of whom is a solopreneur, it’s only a matter of time before one of us will need help with a job that’s too much for one person. When that time comes, it will be easier for any of us to get assistance from the others if we already have good professional relationships.
It’s only a matter of time before one of us will need help with a job that’s too much for one person.
That justification fails about half the time. When it does, I usually follow up with an old police adage: Today’s victim is yesterday’s witness and tomorrow’s suspect. If my new acquaintance remains unconvinced of the benefits of working together, I ask how he or she would handle a request to conduct a labor-intensive surveillance project without assistance. A common example of such an assignment here in the mountains is following someone on a multi-day ski vacation.
Whether it’s for insurance or family law purposes, ski surveillance is difficult. The answer from these solo investigators usually goes one of two ways, regardless of whether they can ski. Some wrongly believe they could perform that job alone. Others say they would just decline the assignment due to lack of staffing. A few, though, begin to understand how collaborating, even occasionally, is the only way to consistently capture the revenue available from larger investigation projects.
Developing and maintaining good working relationships with those open-minded investigators helps us all grow our businesses. I now regularly divert certain types of work that aren’t right for me (e.g., conventional surveillance) to the investigators with whom I am allied. Sometimes I give the work away. Lately, though, I’ve started accepting finder’s fees from the investigators to whom I give jobs. When those same investigators work on serious criminal cases, which are my specialty, they know they can call me for help. Sometimes they will just refer the defense attorney to me for a direct hire. In return, I offer the PI a finder’s fee for sending me the attorney’s business.
Each year in the PI business I make more money than the previous year. I attribute that growth to several factors: Near the top of the list is collaboration with other local investigators. By working together, we learn each other’s abilities and strengths. We also agree on a reasonable range for hourly fees, so we’re not constantly trying to underbid each other on job estimates. Most importantly, we now trust each other. That helps us develop and maintain solid reputations in our community as professional investigators.
Sam Petitto is a legal investigator specializing in felony criminal defense. He is also a board member of the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado and an adjunct instructor at the Southwest Regional Law Enforcement Academy. Prior to embracing the PI lifestyle, Sam and his K-9 were professional hide-and-seek players for the City of Durango Police Department. Learn more at LinkedIn or email Sam @ DiscreetDetection.com