Thanks so much to all who took the time to answer our follow-up survey! Here are the results.
We had 87 respondents, including investigators from Ontario to Hawaii and from as far afield as New Zealand and Kenya. They represent a wide range of specialties, and their comments reflect a huge variety of experiences during these pandemic months of 2020-21: serious income losses and banner years, isolation and meaningful connection, illness and loss, stagnation and innovation. It’s interesting to compare these replies with our survey results from a year ago—and to recall how little we understood then about what was coming.
In a word, this year has been … real. Real AF. But two sets of responses have been extra heartening to see. First, the question about acts of kindness brought forth some beautiful callouts to fellow investigators who stepped up to help each other. And the final question asked PIs to rate their optimism about the future of their work. Maybe it’s unsurprising that hope took an upward swing since last spring. Still, it could have gone the other way. Pair that with the stories of generosity, and a story unfolds, one that’s trending toward hope and humanity. After this year, I’ll take it.
Thanks so much to everyone who took part, both times!
Here’s an overview of your responses:
What type of work is your main source of income?
How large is your firm?
I had more work than previous year: 21
No change: 11
Yes – a cycle of slowdowns & rebounds, but I’m OK: 32
Yes – significant slowdown & loss of income: 17
Yes – I had to downsize and/or lay off employees: 3
I closed my business this year: 0
I am considering leaving the industry: 3
If you’ve worked outside the investigative field or left the industry altogether this year in order to survive financially, tell us about your experience:
Several respondents took side gigs as delivery drivers for Door Dash or FedEx to make ends meet. Others were grateful for backup skills from previous careers or for a diversified portfolio: Hal went back to real estate appraisal when his defense work slowed to a crawl. Shaun Culwell was glad for his credentials as a psychology professor. Some folks adapted with new endeavors: “ATB” in New York State opened a pistol training academy. Ed Baugh of St. Louis added process service. Joe Pihi of Honolulu wrote, “…our firm had diversified into other markets, Pre-Employment and Tenant Screening and TSA Enrollment for Pre-Check and TWIC credentials, all of which kept our business running.”
But the most triumphant comment of all was by “Dakota North,” who wrote:
"I am a multipotenialite. I work in the construction industry, insurance claims and I am a designer. So, having so many different areas of interest and talent, the pandemic was hard...but not devastating."
Perhaps we should all become multipotentialites.
What are some ways you adapted your investigative work or business strategy to this pandemic year?
The most common adaptations were shifting to remote work and virtual/phone interviews, cutting expenses, and adding unprecedented hygiene precautions to the office. Quite a few reported taking jobs they’d usually decline, while a similar number did the opposite, becoming more selective about the jobs they accepted—a “life’s too short” mindset adaptation. Some closed the office and moved ops home, and several added new services.
Did you retool your firm to work remotely this year?
Which of these professional challenges did you face over the past year?
Income loss: 42
Difficulty finding new clients: 21
Clients expecting me to take unnecessary risks: 23
Concern for safety of employees/partners: 17
Worry for income loss to employees: 17
Anguish over decision to lay off employees: 4
Remote work was less effective: 17
Harder to stay motivated working solo: 10
Difficult to focus with family at home: 15
Low spirits – work felt less meaningful: 12
I got COVID and lost weeks to illness: 6
Employees/colleagues got COVID – worried for them: 10
How did you change your marketing strategy this past year? What new services did you add?
We got a wide range of replies to this question. Some folks ramped up online marketing efforts via social media and Google Adwords and updated company websites; others reached out to clients the old-fashioned ways—by phone, email, or postcard mailings. Travel restrictions prompted some to hire subcontractors or focus more on home-based investigations like background checks, corporate risk consulting, opposition research, and locating beneficiaries and heirs. And Steve Pease in Colorado Springs carved out a niche teaching PI classes online to mystery writers, which is an utterly brilliant idea.
Here’s a representative sampling of replies:
“Made more personal phone calls to check in on clients and their families.” —Steven Mason, Arizona
“I spent more time fine tuning our website and online presence. We tried to grow our background investigation work to be more consistent.” —Ben Lopez, Chicago, IL
"I have had a website under construction forever. I finally decided to get my butt in gear and work on getting it done." —Dakota North
“Sent postcards to law firms, made cold calls, went to courthouse and handed out business cards. I’ve also tried services like Bark.com and Thumbtack (both with minimal results).” —Scott Shepard, Columbus, OH
“I received my license in September 2019. Whatever marketing and advertising goals I had planned for coming into 2020 went down the toilet. I pivoted and took the time to revaluate the investigation market and what was lacking. I looked into my investigator ‘crystal ball’ and guessed that cyber is going a bigger factor for investigations coming out of the pandemic. So, I dug in and started learning about cyber investigations, OSINT, SOCMINT, and for giggles learning how to investigate cryptocurrencies.” —Eli W, Amarillo TX
“We advertised virtual consultations. We focused on the ‘essential business’ factor. We designed masks with our logo for in-person attorney and court visits.” —Steven, Knoxville
“Video marketing (YouTube, LinkedIn) for the win. Added SIU services.” —Adam Visnic, Cincinnati, OH
“We placed an emphasis on web presence, did video and testimonials, small length video info, FAQ, offered free consultation Zoom calls to attorneys, hired a marketing specialist virtually.” —KC R, Atlanta HQ
Going forward, what will change about how you do business, based on how you’ve adapted to the pandemic?
The two most popular responses were “keep using Zoom” and “keep working from home.” Clearly, Zoom conferencing and remote work aren’t going away, even when COVID does. These are some of the biggest ways work itself may change forever.
“Employers and employees have both embraced the advantages of remote work,” writes Matthew Haag in the New York Times, “including lower office costs and greater flexibility for employees, especially those with families.” That shift is even easier for PIs, whose line of work is eminently portable, and whose small or solo firms are nimble enough to shift easily to home offices. As Fort Worth investigator Jim Ellis pointed out, “Zoom interviews and virtual court, in some instances, are hopefully here to stay. They save time, save the client money, and expand our reach to areas that would be cost-prohibitive to travel to.”
Some folks also mentioned plans to diversify services and focus more on online investigation. Here are a few outlier responses:
“Going to diversify into a new “Covid proof” field: truck driving, going to get my CDL license after years of procrastinating. I will keep doing PI work part-time as well.” —MDD, NYC
“You’ve got to have a contingency in place when shit hits the fan…which it certainly did. Take a good hard look in the mirror and make a pivot if you absolutely have to. Adapt or die.” —Adam Visnic, Cincinnati, OH
“More online forms and electronic signatures.” —Andy Adams, Kentucky
Were there any surprise revelations for you this year—the good kind? Lessons learned, shifts in priorities?
Lots of folks mentioned taking time to rest and unplug for the first time in years and shifting priorities from moneymaking to human connection.
“I took two weeks off and realized how tired I really was. Need to do that more often!” —Beth, Colorado
“The community as a whole became closer and more willing to share ideas with others.” —Steven Mason, Arizona
“Cutting slow paying or problem clients has not hurt business. More time to focus on quality clients.” —Ken Shigut, Thousand Oaks, CA
"I fell in love with criminal defense work. I've also been able to network with more women in the field and no longer feel so alone in a world of retired male law enforcement." —Meredith, Pacific Northwest
“The past two years of my life (cancer & COVID) have shifted my focus from the typical priorities of a small business owner to people. People are what matter. I try not to sweat the small stuff. (And many things I thought were big are actually small.)” —Rachele’ Davis, Missouri
“I’ve become much more serious about being healthy, eating right, and getting plenty of exercise.” —Brandon Brewster, West Virginia
“Bought body armor; stock piled ammunition.” —CISRGISTICS, Dallas-Ft. Worth
“Became closer to some long term clients – shared more personal information with each other.” —CentralTXPI
“Being stuck at home, I researched a lot of things. I added new technology to my arsenal and developed my online skills. My home office is great. Even with a little chaos and family drama, it’s nice to be home.” —Dakota North
Have you benefitted from acts of kindness or generosity from your PI colleagues this year, at a time you needed it most?
Many respondents said colleagues seemed more supportive and helpful this year than ever before. They mentioned referrals, advice, and increased transparency about running a business, and they cited lots of specific acts of kindness. To our minds, these answers are the silveriest silver lining of this whole garbage year—evidence of the persistence of decency amidst chaos and loss.
Some favorite replies, with humblest thanks to people who called out Hal and Pursuit:
“I started engaging more on Twitter. The PI community did help immensely by sharing their knowledge and skills with podcasts or stories. Their conversations let me know, we were not alone in the slow down or stress. Their humor helped and they didn’t know it. I’m proud to be a PI.” —Ben Lopez, Chicago, IL
“Oh yes. We have sought out the expertise of many of our more seasoned colleagues. Scott Fulmer has been very helpful in advice on getting our podcast off the ground. We have also made some contacts with Pursuit Magazine that we value highly.” —Shaun Culwell, Fort Worth, TX
“When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, Rob Douglas with Skopenow sent me a brand new iPad to encourage me to watch movies during my recovery from a few surgeries. Brian Willingham of Diligentia Group snapped a photo of several colleagues at dinner during the OSMOSIS conference to let me know they missed me. Brett Webber of Consilad in Australia emailed me ALL of his OSMOSIS notes since I wasn’t able to attend due to my chemo regimen. Though I haven’t struggled as much as most during COVID, my year with cancer showed me how caring and thoughtful this group of private investigators can be. I am blessed to have so many wonderful colleagues and friends.” —Rachele’ Davis, Missouri
"I really enjoyed the PI happy hour. It was nice to see how everyone was doing during the pandemic." —Dakota North
“Two women have been my investigation champions this past year as their practices have evolved: Verla Viara and Julie Armijo. Their generosity, based in their years of expertise, provided referrals and resources as I developed my own practice.” —Meredith, Pacific Northwest
“My clients have been gracious and patient with the difficulties working with a stalled justice system.” —Michael, Texas
“Tom Ruskin of CMP Group out of NYC gave me a good, meaty case right at the perfect time, and encouraged me to join the state PI association.” —MDD, NYC
“Hal Humphreys and Kelly Paxton were wonderful about sharing their insights in how to grow our business.” —KRS, Daphne, AL
“Really enjoyed the PI happy hours I was able to attend. Also received opportunities to present webinars for some state associations. Shout out to Kim Ridding in Indiana for the opportunity to present, and to Brian Willingham, who referred cases and became a resource for us as well.” —Mark Murnan, Palm Beach County, FL
“Yes, one of my business competitors, Steve, provided for my upkeep severally.” —Peter Mutula, Kenya
“Recently, I called Hal Humphreys about a case I didn’t think I could handle because of some logistical issues and some crazy circumstances about the case. He said he would do it, but encouraged me to sort it out myself. I did, and it turned into one of the highlights of my investigative career. I just needed that little push out of my comfort zone, and my bearded mentor, friend, and spiritual guide gave it to me.” —Jason Attas, Central Texas
On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 = maximum concern & 10 = optimistic), how do you feel about the immediate future of your business?
Compare this to March of 2020: the average number was 6.54. Positive feelings are on the rise. That’s as good a takeaway as any.