A Few Thoughts on Disruption and Deception, Skepticism and Trust
Full disclosure: I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the notion of Trustify. A lot of our fellow investigators were opposed, and they were vindicated. Sometimes skeptics are proved right. And sometimes trust is rewarded.
I tend to give folks the benefit of the doubt, until they give me a reason not to.
Plus, I love the idea of disruptors. I’m a fan of startups. Most of them fail. Most of them fail miserably. That said, every once in a while, one hits and changes everything.
I’m thinking of Uber. I’m thinking of Venmo. I’m thinking of Facebook. All of these startups were panned by the establishment.
Uber – It’ll never work. No way to regulate drivers. No way enough people will sign up to drive to make this work. Cars will not be available when we need them, like the all-reliable cab.
We know how that worked out. I now have both Uber and Lyft on my phone, and I never, ever hail a cab. Sure, there have been problems. But these apps have changed how people travel, and there’s no going back.
Venmo – It’ll never work. No way to regulate money transfers. No way enough people will sign up to make this work.
We know how that worked out. I now have Venmo and Cash App on my phone, and I never, ever use checks anymore. Splitting the tab at a dinner out with friends has never been easier, and there’s no going back.
Facebook – Silly idea. Waste of time. Nobody wants their information/images/personal thoughts out there for all to see. People care more about privacy than —
OK, that’s a bad example. But we know how that worked out. Facebook has forever changed how people waste time and share silly ideas, and there’s no going back.
Still, these are just three of the outlier winners. They are not representative of startup culture in general.
In the beginning, I was intrigued by the idea of Trustify. More intrigued than threatened, I suppose. Sure, it promised to disrupt. But I don’t mind that idea. Sure, it relied upon people being willing to accept lower fees to get more work. I didn’t love that, but I could also see how some folks just getting started in the business might elect to sign on.
We know how that turned out.
I have a notion that the primary flaw in the business model was the relatively small market. Everybody needs a ride across town at some point (in Chicago, NYC, and Nashville almost daily). Most people do not hire an investigator on a daily basis. Most people don’t hire an investigator even on a semi-regular basis. Let’s face it, most people will never hire an investigator.
The lawsuits are salacious. They always are. Malfeasance! Misappropriation of funds! They used company assets for personal use! Every investor lawsuit I’ve ever seen cries some variation of these themes. These allegations do not in any way surprise me. They may prove entirely true. And even if they prove partly true, they are pretty damning … and deeply disappointing. I’m sad for the victims in this: folks who were never paid for their work. That’s not OK. And I especially feel for PIs who are owed money — hard-working PIs who signed up with Trustify as subcontractors, hoping to break into a competitive field or get struggling business through a lean time. The last thing they needed was to work for free and get left in the lurch.
In the wake of this mess, everyone will pile on and say, “I knew all along.” OK. Well, I didn’t. I watched Trustify’s rise with an open mind, and I’m seeing them fall with the same mindset. The truth will come out. THEN we’ll know.
Full disclosure: I met with Danny Boice in the Trustify offices in D.C. a couple years back. I liked him. He’s charming, engaging, and charismatic. I met with him to discuss continuing education opportunities for his staff and contract investigators. I’ll admit that I was also a little bit bemused by the “architectural splendor” (as Chris Borba so aptly puts it) of Trustify’s sweeping office space and had to wonder about all that extravagant spending.
Trustify and I never came to terms on any continuing education agreements, but Boice seemed like a nice enough guy to me at the time.
Am I glad we never came to terms? You bet. Would I want to be in business with a failed startup whose founders are accused of fraud? No. Absolutely not.
As a private investigator and owner of this magazine and an online education business for PIs, I suppose I have a sort of personal stake in the question of Trustify. All of us, as private investigators, were watching closely as the thing launched. Many voiced strong opinions about it, and I respected the full gamut of views. But I can’t pretend to be a distant observer. That’s why, in 2015, we hired a reporter from outside the industry to do an early-look piece on Trustify. Chad Nichols approached the story without bias and spoke with investigators who expressed a range of hopes and concerns. I still stand by that piece.
I also stand by Chris Borba’s article, a well-written play-by-play of Trustify’s fall, which is ongoing. I reviewed and commented on this story as it made its way through the editorial process, and I’m glad to have his take on the situation. Of course, it’s hard to know whether a dumpster fire will fizzle or explode while it’s still burning, but Mr. Borba has done an incredible job of researching the information that’s currently available and giving us a thorough overview.
I still hope that some crazy smart young entrepreneur will find a way to shake things up in our industry one day. In a way, it’s happening all the time, as new ways to find and share information emerge. I see sharp new PIs coming up through the ranks, and they fill me with hope and excitement for the future of our industry.
I have a sneaking suspicion that our line of work is just too specialized to lend itself to “Uberization.” But who knows? Until then, I’m gonna keep working my cases and serving my clients. I like to think of it as my low-key, low-tech way to disrupt our excellent but flawed criminal justice system, one case at a time, by doing my best to help represent defendants. Disruption comes in many forms. But trust is a single thing, and it’s pretty damn simple.
*Addendum (in response to a rebuttal email by a former Trustify employee):
After our piece on Trustify dropped, I got an email from Matthew De Leon, a former Trustify employee. Matthew and I had an occasion to meet when I was in D.C. to take a meeting with Danny Boice. He seemed like a good guy to — an investigator who says he stuck around at Trustify, doing what he could to see that investigators who were owed money eventually got paid. He did this without being paid himself for several months.
Matthew felt that our piece on Trustify needed a little work. He took issue with several points. So we’re giving him a chance to address what he feels are inaccuracies in the article, and also in earlier reporting about the company in bigger news outlets:
According to him, Trustify did have an agency license in Virginia. They did not have an agency license in other states. This apparently met regulatory requirements for most states. I’m not here to say they made the right move, but they were at least licensed in one state. So, there’s that.
Apparently investigators were not paid $50 per hour. Our source says they were paid between $30 and $40 per hour. So there’s that.
Danny Boice apparently did not own a boat. Can’t find records that he ever bought one in his name, his wife’s name, or the Trustify name. So there’s that.
Apparently there was no documentary actually produced. Did they talk about it? Yep. Would it have cost $600,000 to produce? Possible. Did it happen? No.
As editors, Kim and I take full responsibility for any inaccuracies in the story we published. We stand by Chris Borba’s work on this. Apparently he did attempt to reach out to Boice and some Trustify employees to get their take, but wasn’t able to connect before press time. He’d worked on the piece for awhile, but at some point, he had to put the stick down and step away from the horse.
Which is what we’re doing now.
I have a notion that we could keep posting about the dumpster fire that is Trustify and get a slight uptick in schadenfreude likes and clicks. I’m really not interested in that. I am interested letting this story smolder and die in its rightful pile of ashes.
At the end of the day, I don’t know what more to say about Trustify. It was an interesting idea. It didn’t work out. It is — as of now — a failed startup. Right there with so many other interesting ideas that didn’t pan out. There’s pain and loss all around — nobody wins.
This horse is deceased. Let’s walk away.