I’ve made it through three years after starting my own investigative firm. Statistically speaking, I had only a 50 percent chance of making it here. But I like my odds now.
I’m not here to tell you the best way to start an investigative business. Or how to build a thriving investigative business.
This is not based on academic research. I’m not regurgitating what I’ve found in the umpteen business books I’ve read.
This is based on personal experience. This worked for me.
Keep in mind though—this may not work for you.
Read, Read, Read
Before I started my own business, I read voraciously. I read a number of business books before I ever opened my doors. Since then, I have read many more. While some books were great for helping make decisions (like whether to form an LLC or an S corporation), the books that influenced me the most are the ones that opened my mind to new ideas.
Some were better than others, but here are a few that I really like: Rework, Professional Marketing Services, The Thank You Economy, The Referral Engine, The $100 Startup, Anything You Want and The E-Myth Revisited.
You know the people you think are your competitors or enemies? They aren’t. They are your friends. Meet as many as you can in your area. Exchange and share ideas. Help one another out. Learn from each other. It’s a small world out there. You never know when you may need them. Or when they may need you.
Outsource What You Don’t Do Well
Do you know what you’re good at? And what you’re not? If you don’t, you might be better off taking a look at yourself in the mirror. I’ll wait.
Now figure out a way to get it done. Outsource, barter, hire a freelancer or just figure out a way to have someone else do it. If you are not good with numbers, get a good accountant. If you have no technical skills, outsource to a kid who does.
It doesn’t pay for you to spend hours trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Be What You Want To Be
Speaking of those business books, nearly every book you read talks about growing and expanding your business, having a corporate structure and managing growth. That’s fine for some people, but what’s wrong with being small? Nothing.
You want to work out of your house? Go for it! You want to have a big office in midtown Manhattan? Go for it. You want to be the biggest investigative firm in your area? By all means. You make it what you want.
Find Your Niche
Find or develop a skill and become awesome at it. Know everything you can about it. If it’s surveillance, practice your craft. If it’s investigative research, dig through the depths of hell to find stuff.
Having one thing that you are awesome at is much easier to sell than having a bunch of stuff that you are mediocre at. It’s tempting to be all things to all people, but that’s no easy task.
Use Your Network
Most people start networking when they need something. Like a job. Or business from someone. That’s the wrong way to do it. Networking involves give and take. You give something; you get something back.
Having said that, whatever network you have, it’s now time to start using it. Reach out to everyone you know who could potentially use you. And try to make it as personal as possible. (Hint: Blast emails are not personal.)
Feast or Famine
The term “feast or famine” is something you will often hear from investigators. You’ve either got more work than you know what to do with, or you are twiddling your thumbs. You’ve got to prepare for it, both physically and mentally. With the great times, there are inevitably going to be slow times. Get ready for it.
How many investigators do you see without a website, with only an AOL or Gmail address? It’s 2013. Whether you realize it or not, your degree of tech-savvy (or its lack) leaves an impression on a potential client.
Think about how you want your business to look. Do you want to be mobile? Be able to collaborate with other investigators? Have a platform to deliver video to clients? I set up my entire business in the cloud, and I can work from literally anywhere in the world. If that sounds appealing to you, you should be thinking about it too.
Many people starting a new business will try to emulate other businesses in their field. They look at competitors’ websites, logos and marketing materials and try to copy them.
I never really understood this.
If you are starting a business, do you really want to be like everyone else? Maybe you do, but think about how difficult it will be to pick you out of a crowd.
Use Your Gut
You will get lots of advice about starting your own business. Some you will find tremendously helpful and some, not so much. It’s great to have a few people who own small businesses to use as sounding boards, but in the end, you need to go with what you believe. You are the one who has to live with the decision.
Don’t Get It All Done at Once
There is a lot to do when you start your own business. It’s a bit overwhelming. Take baby steps. Get the critical stuff done first. You don’t need a website, marketing materials, business cards and letterhead to get business. Do things as you need to. The rest will come in time.
Investigating Is Only a Small Part of What You Do
One thing that often gets overlooked is that you first need to know how to run a business. You may be the greatest investigator in the world, but that has little to do with the future success of your business. You may have a talent for investigating, but that doesn’t mean you have a talent for running a business.
Some of the best investigators I have ever known would be the worst business partners.
Have a Plan
When I say “plan” I don’t mean “business plan.” A business plan is a waste of time. Ask yourself this: What do you want your company to look like a year from now? Five years from now? Just imagine it. There is no need to draft some grand plan.
My plan was to be mobile so I can work from anywhere—to be small and nimble and to have a culture of openness and being different. Having this plan helped me make decisions more easily. If it didn’t fit into my master plan, I didn’t do it.
So when I was asked to spend a few weeks in Alaska on a case, I was able to pick up my laptop and go. And when I was asked if I wanted to work on a four-month project where I had to travel three hours every day and wouldn’t have been able to do any other work, I said no.
Keep Costs Low
If there is one piece of advice that’s more important than any of the others, it’s this: Keep your costs as low as possible. Having a big overhead can kill you before you even start.
Don’t hire until you absolutely need to, and don’t spend until you need to. Do you think you need a big fancy office on Main Street? Try working out of your house or subletting. Think you need a top-of-the-line website? Try a WordPress site.
You can set up a full-fledged business with a couple thousand dollars. Easily. I was turning a profit my first full month in business, and I have never looked back.
Starting a new business is not all that forgiving. I work harder and longer hours than I have ever worked. But I love it and would not trade it for anything.
This worked for me, but your mileage may vary.