Notes from the Field: A New York investigator with global reach shares what he’s learned from taking his small firm’s client base from zero to sixty in just five years.
My small private investigation practice has been in existence for nearly five years. Nothing to be jumping up and down about, but stats show that more than 50% of businesses would have shut down by now, so I guess it’s a bit of an accomplishment.
Like many small investigative practices, I started with one client who was critical to the launch of my business. In my first weeks of opening the doors, I was already hard at work on a case — a white-collar criminal defense matter that was about to go to trial. I spent Labor Day weekend in 2009 working day and night on it. That client carried me through the first days, weeks, and months of my launch.
Frankly, it was great. I didn’t have to market myself. I didn’t even have a website, marketing materials, or a business card. Nothing.
But I was making a profit. Immediately.
Within a few months, however, I got worried. Was I relying on this client too much? All good things must come to an end eventually, I told myself.
Despite working an insane number of hours, I decided I needed to work more. Develop a website. Create a business card and collateral materials, and start marketing myself to other firms.
It was not a decision I took lightly.
I’m a husband and a dad. I enjoy family time, and working more was not really something I coveted — especially since I was already cramming 50- and 60-hour workweeks into an already hectic schedule.
But I knew it was necessary. Experience has taught me that relying on one client for the bulk of your business is a big mistake. Not only can that client disappear in an instant; but he holds too much power over your fortunes. If you depend on a single source of business, your future is no longer in your hands.
I’d love to say that there was some “secret” I could share in 5 simple steps. But if I did, I'd be lying.
In the first year, this client accounted for 65% percentage of my revenue. While I didn’t have a specific goal in mind going forward, I knew I needed to broaden my revenue base. At any point, I knew that any single client, and the bulk of my work, could disappear.
I went from seven clients in year one to 14, 24, 40 in years two, three, and four. Now, I do regular work for more than 60 clients. The percentage of my revenue from that initial client went from 65% to less than 10 percent.
So how did I build my client base?
I’d love to say that there was some “secret” I could share in 5 simple steps. But if I did, I’d be lying. The unsimple but completely true answer is this: The “secret” was hard work, a motivational dose of fear, and lots of trial and error.
Here is what I learned.
Do great work, and do it over again.
“Your steak can sizzle and look crazy appetizing, but if it doesn’t taste any good, your customers aren’t coming back.” ~ Gary Vaynerchuk
As with any business, having a great product or service is your number one marketing tool. The number two-ranking tool is not even a close second. You could have a world-class marketing plan and immaculate credentials, but if you don’t provide a
good great service, it’s all for naught.
If you have to, spend all of your time and energy on creating something that actually brings value to the people you’re asking for money!
It’s impossible to overstate this.
How do you do it?
For one, don’t take cases that you can’t manage extremely well. That may sound crazy: If you’re just starting your business, you may have the urge to take anything that comes your way. My response would be: At what price? If you take a case that’s not a great match for your skill set, there’s an acute chance that you won’t do a great job. Not doing a great job tarnishes your reputation.
I don’t care how much money it will make you.
I won’t take cases that I know someone else can do better. It’s not worth the risk to my reputation.
Your Web presence is critical to your future success.
You notice I didn’t say “social media” or “your website.” I said “your Web presence.”
Think about it.
What is the first thing that you do when you’re shopping for a new product or service? You search the Internet, right? You go into full-on Google mode, looking for reviews, articles, blogs and websites about anything and everything you can get your hands on.
If you do, you are not alone. Seventy percent of people search the Internet before they buy a product or service. That number is absolutely staggering [and growing].
And if you don’t think it’s important now, imagine what it’s going to be like a few years from now.
A few years ago, you could have paid some guy in India a few hundred bucks to make your site show up on the top page of Google. The mere fact that you were on the first page or among the top three choices would have been a gold mine. Now, with the algorithm changes that Google has made, getting to the top search position in Google is about as challenging as it gets. While there will always be people gaming the system, it’s constantly a moving target, and one that is not worth shooting at.
So what do you do?
Most experts will tell you to focus your efforts on your company website. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or other property, you are in complete control of your own website. Facebook has famously changed the game. Just a few months ago, it was easy to get in front of millions of people on Facebook. Now, they encourage that you pay to sponsor a post if you want to capture millions of views.
Make a compelling website. Focus on good design and good content. And as part of your site, I strongly urge you to create a blog. Produce authentic content that people want to see: Videos of a day in the life. Stories from the field. Open up your digital doors a bit and let people in.
After nearly five years of blogging, I have more than 250,000 people each year visiting my website.
Having a strong online presence broadens your potential client base — exponentially — beyond the people you know personally.
Think outside your area.
Private investigators for years worked local. The jobs revolved around following disenchanted spouses, surveilling people collecting disability, conducting in-person interviews, or visiting the scene of an accident … all within your local area.
The world has changed. Work is not [as] local anymore. The Internet and the flow of information have changed everything. Business has become national and international all in the matter of a few short years.
Some people have not gotten the memo.
There are even investigative marketing “experts” who say that you should be thinking local, too, by promoting your website as the Small Town Investigator. Or naming it SmallTownInvestigator.com. And blogging about how to be a Small Town Investigator. And hiring someone to promote your Small Town Investigator website.
In the past few months, I have worked on cases with components in Las Vegas, Miami, Los Angeles, London and Paris. I’ve been hired by clients in Columbus, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Dallas, Texas; Melbourne, Australia; and Madrid, Spain.
Most of my clients aren’t within 1,000 miles of me, and most of the work that I’ve done has absolutely nothing to do with New York, where I am based. In fact, almost none of it does.
I’m not bragging. I’ve just decided that I am more than just a NewYorkPrivateInvestigator.com. You can be, too.
The truth of the matter is that you can find out more about a person sitting behind your computer in one hour than you can after tens of hours of surveillance and interviews and “boots on the ground.”
We’ve got more information available at our fingertips that we ever have. It’s just a matter of harnessing it.
If you think local, you will stay local. If you think bigger, you will be bigger.
Build your network.
Most people start “networking” when they need something. Like a job. Or a referral to someone who has a skill set that they don’t.
It’s a huge mistake.
If there’s one thing I have learned over the last five years, it’s that there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know. And I am the first one to admit it. To clients, colleagues, and fellow investigators.
But you know what? I bet I know someone who does know about it. Someone that I have a relationship with, someone I can call on a moment’s notice, ask for advice, or hire on a case.
What does this have to do with growing your client base?
For one, investigators can be clients. In fact, they’ve been one of the biggest and most steady sources of income for me over the past several years.
But more importantly, the resources you develop can help you get cases. So the next time you get a call for a rush surveillance in Nashville, Tennessee, you know to call Hal Humphreys. Or a matter that involves a big-time celebrity in Los Angeles, you know to call Scott Ross. Or some “boots on the ground” in Portland? Eli Rosenblatt’s got that.
You don’t need to know everything. You just need to know the right people for the right job.
Look outside of the investigative business for inspiration.
Ruben Roel wrote a great piece recently about how investigators would often call him to design a website that imitated what similar companies were doing. Roel said that nearly everyone who contacted him was trying to copy the competition, rather than carving out their own niche.
I’ve seen the same thing. Most investigative websites have the same spy-like photos, with the same service listings, and the same bland and boring content. [Save for the Mintz Group, which has one of the most innovative investigative websites I have seen]. In fact, I have mailed cease and desist emails to no less than 20 other investigative firms that flat out stole information from my website.
Branding, marketing and sales may not be your forte. But if you’re looking for innovative design and marketing ideas, consider investigating brands outside of your industry. You need to stand out from the competition; not be just like everyone else. See what folks are doing who are NOT your direct competition.
Just think about it: What if every restaurant had nearly the same name, or offered the same menu items? How would you differentiate? You wouldn’t! You would probably just go to the place that had the lowest price.
As a business owner, that’s not a position you want to be in.
It’s taken me nearly 40 years, but I have a pretty good sense of what I am good at and what I am not. I know where my strengths lie and where I can use some help. And I am not shy about making these things known.
I will readily admit to a client that I have no idea how to do something. The last thing I want to do is risk screwing up a job by pretending I’m an expert on everything.
It never ceases to amaze me when someone claims expertise in something, knowing full well that they have no idea what they’re doing. Overconfidence and bluster only create more problems.
When you try to work outside your expertise, you not only fail your client, you fail yourself. Don’t do it.
When you try to work outside your expertise, you not only fail your client, you fail yourself. Don’t do it.
Decide who you want to be.
A few weeks ago, I needed a locksmith. First, I called a locksmith who’d helped me a few years back. He didn’t call me back that night. Called again first thing next morning. No answer. I called three other local locksmiths on their “24-Hour Hotline.” None of them answered either.
I repeatedly called each of them until someone answered the phone. I did this because I needed someone, and I needed them fast. It really didn’t matter who it was.
It got me thinking: I don’t want to ever be that guy, the one who just happens to answer the phone. Or just happens to be on the top of your Google list. In fact, I used to have my business number ring to my cell phone. I would get calls at all hours of the night. From psychopaths, weirdos, and desperate people.
I want to be the guy that people call because they know I can do a great job. The guy they call when they have a challenging problem and need a real solution, not the guy who happens to be on the list when they are bargain hunting.
There is nothing wrong with that. You can be that guy and make a good living for yourself. But I am warning you: There are going to be some crazy people on the other end of the phone line at 3am.
Choose your niche.
Last, but not least, choose a niche.
Do a few things, and do them awesomely.
Not 420 mediocre things.
Nobody likes mediocrity.
I don’t know everything. I haven’t built a ginormous investigative business that is about to overtake the world.
But if I do say so myself, I’ve built a nice little business. And the one thing I do know is that it has taken me five years of trial and error and lots of long hours to figure out what has worked for me.
Hopefully, it can work for you too.