Cash flow, economic downturns, marketing to new clients—these are hurdles every PI-entrepreneur faces. But over the long haul, there are even thornier issues.
A few weeks back, Adam Visnic of Gravitas Investigations was kind enough to invite me onto his new YouTube show, The P.I. Hero Interview Series, where he talks about the journeys of other investigators into the field. (Scroll to the bottom to check out my episode.)
Adam was kind enough to send me an outline of what we were going to talk about — which I totally appreciated, since I like to prepare for such things. I make a fool of myself pretty regularly, so preparation is key to not looking like an idiot, especially on a video that will live forever on the interwebs (that’s a technical term). 😉
But halfway through the interview, he asked me about a big challenge that I have been able to overcome in my private investigation career.
I was stumped. Not because I haven’t had challenges, I have. Lots of them. Maybe it was the “big” challenge that threw me off.
The obvious answer would have been economical struggles. We’ve had the normal ups and downs of work, but generally our business has been going up and to the right in terms of revenue. My own experience has been that the investigative industry is somewhat immune to certain kinds of economic struggles that plague other businesses.
Like any small business, we’ve had issues with cash flow, client acquisition, the economy, health care, diversification of client base, etc.
But at the time, nothing jumped out at me as our biggest challenge.
I was able to cobble together an answer, but it was not particularly eloquent.
Until it hit me, at about 11pm the night I spoke to Adam, just as I was about to close my eyes.
So after giving it some more thought, I have come up with a few big challenges.
Grow, Grow, Grow
Read any business or entrepreneurial book, and one of the messages you will inevitably get is “grow, grow, grow” — which is basically the frame of mind that I started out with. Of course, it’s easy to grow from nothing to something when you are first starting out. But growing becomes more challenging later on, especially when you are a one-man operation.
You see, one of the reasons that I was not totally satisfied with my previous job was that I had become a paper pusher. I was no longer doing the investigations; I was mostly managing people, editing reports, and doing management-type things.
While that’s all well and good, it wasn’t what I loved. I loved doing the work. That’s what got me up in the morning.
But doing the work is exhausting. And there are only so many hours in the day to actually do the work — before you get overwhelmed. But if I hired people, that would just be getting me back to where I was at my previous job. Being the boss, managing personalities (a/k/a herding cats) and not doing what I loved.
The other thing that the “grow, grow, grow” mindset does is: it encourages you to take on work that you shouldn’t, simply for the sake of growth. Like taking on work that you are not qualified for. Or taking some menial, low-budget work to keep you occupied.
My challenge was to maintain that love of doing the work, keeping clients happy, and earning enough financially to keep that going.
So my challenge was to maintain that love of doing the work, keeping clients happy, and earning enough financially to keep that going.
It was a constant battle.
Until a few years ago, when I talked to the owner of an amazingly successful investigative firm that now has a dozen offices all around the world and over a hundred employees, was I finally was able to wrap my head around things. He told me that SIX was the number of employees that he was most happy with. He was making great money, didn’t have the headaches of a big firm (like overhead, human resources and bureaucracy), and was still intimately involved with the work.
I was floored, honestly. Here was a man with an incredibly successful career, who has made millions of dollars and was renowned in the industry. If he could have done it all over again, he would have stayed put at SIX employees.
Which got me thinking: Why can’t I just be content with what I have? Being small and having an employee or two, a stable group of subcontractors, a good income, and freedom. I’m not beholden to others, and I still have an enormous amount of control over what I do every day.
Growing for the sake of growth makes no sense to me. I understand that alone probably disqualifies me from being the CEO of a publicly-traded company, but so be it.
But having that type of business — small and maneuverable — allows me to concentrate on the things that matter most: my family.
The Battle of Work / Life
If you find anyone who has figured out the work-life balance, they are a liar.
I have struggled deeply with it, for a few reasons: one is that it’s just the nature of the job. “Take your time” or “you can finish it off whenever is convenient for you” or “we have weeks to finish this” is something I have never heard from a client.
It’s more like, can you finish this by tomorrow, ASAP or yesterday. It’s never easy, but it is what it is.
And I am a firm believer that people want to work with doers, so 99.9% of the time, I just figure out how to fit it into my schedule. For the past 12 years, I have been mostly a solo-practitioner, with kids and family obligations, so that’s has not always been easy to juggle.
Similarly, as someone who mostly bills by the hour, I have tended to weigh my free time by how much money I could make doing other things. So, on a Saturday afternoon, when I have nothing better to do, I can either bill a few hours or sit around watching Netflix.
Since leaving my “corporate” investigation gig 12 years ago, I’ve worked more hours, weekends, and holidays than I would like to admit. But there is something deeply satisfying about doing it for myself, not for someone else.
But I also know that there really is no such thing as a work-life balance. To run a successful business, you’ve got to put in the work and the hustle, no matter how off-balance it makes you.
So I beat this by simply not engaging. It is a battle I can’t win. So I just negotiate my resources as best I can and divide up my time as needed. That way, I can attend my kids’ sporting events and still work late into the night. Or, when the inevitable work thing comes around during my vacation, I just do it instead of moaning about it. It’s a constant balancing act that will never fully be in balance.
The Perception Battle
The second-biggest area that I struggle with is the perception of the investigative industry.
This may seem silly, but I take it personally when I see the “bad apples” splashed over the newspaper, the shady or illegal tactics that some investigators use, or the way that we have portrayed in pop-culture.
It bothered me so much that I paid to have a consumer survey done about the perception of private investigators. To no one’s surprise, the results weren’t good.
But the damage to our industry has mostly been self-inflicted.
I became obsessed with ethics, too, after seeing message board postings of investigators literally asking for illegal information, like hacking emails, credit reports, and illegally-obtained bank accounts.
A few years ago, an investigator told me that he puts GPS on vehicles “anytime, anywhere,” despite a universal understanding that it’s not legal.
I got so agitated that my friend and fellow private investigator Molly Donaldson of Waverly Research (who is also an attorney) and I decided to put together our own code of ethics that we shared with the community.
Over the past few weeks, a few of my clients handed over the work product of other investigators. I found these “reports” pretty shocking. One was literally a $14 database search result that the investigator handed to the client, highlighted a few sections, added a few comments, and billed them hundreds of dollars, calling it a “background report.” These raw data reports are merely a guide and a starting point, not an investigation.
As a small business owner, and someone who has created a presence on the Internet and gotten calls from all around the world, I am constantly battling these perceptions. Perceptions of what we can and can’t get, how easy or difficult it is to find things, or how we can and can’t operate.
We face this battle nearly every day, even with longtime clients, smart people, and world-class attorneys.
So how have I tackled this battle of perception? With better information. Writing about it. Talking about it. Being transparent. Sharing a code of ethics with the rest of the world. Posting PSA announcements on my Twitter feed, like this one.
So those have been my biggest struggles. How about you? Share your stories below, or send me a note.
Adam Visnic’s P.I. Hero Interview Series, with Brian Willingham
Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and founder of Diligentia Group. To read more Willingham wisdom, check out his blog and his previous stories for PursuitMag.