The global private investigation industry continues to see steady demand. The market size reached $17.9 billion in 2022 and continues to grow. With more businesses and individuals seeking discreet investigations and information services in today’s complex world, skilled private eyes have plenty of opportunities.
Today’s investigators leverage sophisticated techniques and technology tools for more effective evidence-gathering analysis. The real work of a private investigator is nuanced, challenging, and always in demand from a range of clientele.
This guide will walk you through how to start a private investigator business. Topics include market research, competitive analysis, registering an EIN, obtaining business insurance, marketing, building your brand, and more.
1. Conduct Private Investigator Market Research
Market research is integral to starting a successful private investigation business. It offers insight into your target market, potential business expenses, market saturation, and other important details for small business owners.
Some details you’ll learn through market research for your private investigation firm include:
- Yet the work of a private investigator involves more than trailing subjects or performing sticker-planted car snooping seen on TV dramas.
- Today’s investigators leverage sophisticated techniques and technology tools for more effective evidence-gathering and analysis.
- The largest segment for private investigators is legal and insurance-related services.
- Supporting legal cases and tackling insurance fraud accounts for nearly 60% of industry revenue.
- Private investigators are routinely hired to uncover hidden assets in divorces, track down critical witnesses, or perform employee background checks. Certain search methods may be cybersecurity-related as well.
- While lower value per case, individual clients make up a sizable portion accounting for 30% of industry revenue.
- With over 65,000 firms in operation, competition in this segment is fierce as most licensed private investigators offer similar services targeted at individuals.
- Opportunities exist for private investigators specializing in high-value business intelligence gathering catered to hedge funds and venture capital firms.
- Firms that can perform discreet yet legal intelligence gathering have strong prospects servicing Wall Street clients and the like.
- Digital tools allow remote surveillance, data gathering/analysis, and client communication from anywhere effectively.
- Savvy operators are investing in the latest gadgets and software to efficiently take on new cases and clients across wider geographies without being limited by physical location.
The private investigator field has endured for over a century and continues evolving to meet society’s truth-finding needs in this complex digital age. While crowded and competitive, opportunities exist for skilled operators to carve out profitable niches. Get to know competitors as you develop your own private investigation firm.
2. Analyze the Competition
Understanding the competitive landscape is critical for anyone seeking to start a private investigation firm. Doing thorough competitive analysis helps identify strategic opportunities and avoid wasting time and money competing against superior operators.
The first step is identifying other business owners serving your target region and specialty areas. Other ways to get to know local competitors include:
- Search online directories and resources like the state licensing agencies and associations to find licensed PI firms nearby.
- Compile a list of 25 to 50 competitors and visit their websites gathering key details, services, specialties, client types, and longevity.
- Conversely, undiscovered niches become apparent if you identify client needs getting minimal attention from incumbents.
- Specializing early in underserved facets of investigations can establish you as the go-to expert in those areas even as a newcomer.
- For online presence, look beyond websites too. Search for your prospective firm name and keywords on Google to see what comes up.
- Check Facebook, online review sites, industry directories, social platforms, and local mentions to analyze the digital footprint.
While most private detective business services focus online, many still operate physical offices for in-person consultations or onsite needs. Drive around the territory scouting locations of competitors to assess visibility, branding, parking, accessibility, and foot traffic.
3. Costs to Start a Private Investigator Business
Starting a private investigation firm requires diligent planning and realistic budgeting if one expects to succeed long term. Between state licensing, equipment, advertising, and other expenses – the costs add up rapidly. Yet with some strategic decisions, aspiring private eyes can launch on limited budgets under $15,000.
- State Licensing & Admin Fees – Expect $500-$2,500 just for the first year of state licensing, testing, and application aspects.
- DIY vs Agency – The choice to start as an independent contractor or establish a licensed agency also impacts costs. Agencies have tougher application requirements, surety bonds up to $100k, and higher oversight.
- Insurance – Professional liability shields against errors, negligence, or misconduct allegations. Expect to budget $1,500-$4,000 annually.
- Office Lease – A 400 sq. ft starter office would cost $6,000/year or $500 per month. Virtual mailboxes with meeting room rentals offer cheaper flexible space too.
- Equipment & Initial Tools – While more sophisticated equipment costs vastly more, starter tools run $2,000-$5,000 covering early casework until higher revenues support upgrading.
- Website & Branding – Budget around $3,000 for a pro site, custom branding package, brochures, business cards, and other startup promotion essentials in Year 1.
Ongoing Monthly Expenses: While launching a PI firm has sizable upfront costs, the ongoing expenses continue to mount quickly. Here are conservative monthly estimates to operate once opened:
- Administrative, software, subscriptions: $300
- Marketing expenses: $800 (Ad spend, content creation for website, social media – digital marketing activities)
- Insurance costs: $250
- Office lease: $500
- Professional services retainer: $400 (IT/Web, accountant, legal counsel, etc.)
- Salary/Owner’s draw: $3,500 (Full-time effort unless investors/loans fund living costs)
- Total: $5,750 per Month
The expenses add up rapidly. The above estimate of nearly $70k annually excludes costly equipment upgrades, employees, taxes, and other common expenses. Yet many variables in business model, services, and efficiency enable launching on fairly small $15k budgets initially.
4. Form a Legal Business Entity
When starting a private investigation firm, properly establishing the legal business entity is critical yet often overlooked. The legal form impacts everything from taxes to liability coverage and growth capabilities. For private eyes, limiting personal liability exposure is paramount while retaining flexibility for growth.
Sole proprietorships provide ease of setup with minimal compliance needs. However, they offer no liability protection – leaving the owner’s assets vulnerable to business lawsuits or claims. The business is also inseparable legally from the individual. Thus sole proprietorships prove excessively risky for investigators regularly dealing with sensitive situations.
Partnerships allow multiple owners to share management and liability. However, they still don’t limit liability enough. Any partner’s professional mistakes could still put all partner’s assets at risk. The partners are also jointly and individually liable for the actions of employees. Thus exposure remains too far reaching for investigators.
A corporation protects the owner’s assets and is a separate legal entity from shareholders. This limits financial liability when properly structured and formalities maintained. However heightened record keeping, tax compel, and filing costs add complexity and administrative burdens. The rigid structure can hamper lean operations or pivot for PI firms.
Limited Liability Company (LLC)
Forming a limited liability company (LLC) combines the best aspects of partnerships and corporations. LLC owners obtain limited personal liability for debts, lawsuits, and claims – protecting personal assets. An LLC also requires less rigorous management formalities than a corporation. This provides operational flexibility helpful to private investigators.
5. Register Your Business For Taxes
Whether operating as a sole proprietor or establishing a legal business entity – every private investigator needs an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS for tax purposes. This unique identifier helps file important documents and open business bank accounts.
Acquiring your EIN is fast, free, and simple through the official IRS website.
This online application takes just minutes to complete. Simply provide your personal information, and details on the business structure, answer eligibility questions, and submit. 72 hours later your EIN confirmation will arrive via the email you provide.
With the EIN in hand, also make sure to formally register with your state revenue department for tax obligations like sales tax collection or distribution. Failing to meet state or local tax licensing prerequisites can result in financial penalties down the road.
Getting compliant with an EIN and applicable state/local tax IDs establishes key scaffolding making ongoing business operations smoother when the cases start rolling in. You don’t want to be scrambling to get compliant once already working cases and earning money.
6. Setup Your Accounting
Proper financial tracking is crucial for private eyes – messing up the money side risks far worse outcomes than botched cases. Like covering up clues, sloppy accounting hides dangers. Thus using tools like QuickBooks and quality accountants helps private investigators crack their numbers.
Many new entrepreneurs try tackling finances solo initially via Excel or shoebox methods. As caseloads and expenses grow, this proves increasingly prone to critical errors jeopardizing tax compliance and profitability. That’s why leading a paperless process using accounting software like QuickBooks is strongly advised from the beginning.
Hire an Accountant
It helps immensely to have an accountant in your corner for monthly reconciliation, cash flow analysis, and tax prep. A part-time controller runs around $800 monthly, but some firms offer fixed fee bundles at under $500 per month. This buys essential bookkeeping, bank reconciliation, sales tax filings, and advisor access year-round.
Open a Business Bank Account
Separating all investigative venture finances into dedicated business accounts is a must. Never commingle client payments, purchases, or expenses through personal bank/credit card accounts – asking for inconvenient reviews. Open a free business checking account locally or digitally in minutes specifically for the new firm.
Apply for a Business Credit Card
Likewise, investigators secure a dedicated business credit card for all purchases – reserves track separately from personal credit limits this way. Provide the EIN when applying for credit and submit minimal documentation through issuers like Capital One. Use the card exclusively for investigating work bills – then pay in full every month while reaping robust rewards.
7. Obtain Licenses and Permits
Operating without proper licensure threatens private investigation firms with financial penalties or worse. Find federal details on becoming a licensed private investigator through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBA also offers a local search tool for state and city requirements.
The most fundamental license requirement involves obtaining a private detective agency license. Seek the permit or registration through your state’s overseeing body. Licensing requirements and costs vary by state, but all mandate passing an exam, thorough background checks, and proof of experience or relevant qualifications.
For example, Florida requires applicants to complete a 40-hour training course plus pass both written and firearms testing even for unarmed work. Then candidates submit fingerprints for FBI screening plus documentation like reference letters. The application itself exceeds $500 in fees.
States like Texas have tiered levels of private investigator licenses based on experience and intended work types. Some categories permit open-carry firearms during specific types of investigations. Ensure you apply for the appropriate level aligning with your actual background and capabilities.
Depending on the services offered, certain specialty skills also require validation. For example, firms offering bug sweeping or TSCM (technical surveillance countermeasures) may need technicians with CTT certification demonstrating mastery of complex detection techniques through training and exams.
Vehicle or asset tracking using GPS also comes with legal considerations. Federal statutes require user consent before placing tracking devices on cars or devices people own. Tracked assets like company property or during infidelity cases with signed waivers from one owner may qualify for exceptions. But ignorance won’t suffice as a defense if sued or prosecuted.
8. Get Business Insurance
Private investigators deal in sensitive situations making risk management through insurance critically important. Lacking proper coverage spots firms’ financiin al danger from even one mishap.
General liability insurance protects against third-party allegations of bodily harm or property damage tied to an investigator’s actions. For example, a suspect gets injured fleeing an investigator’s identified surveillance and successes. Quality policies cover legal costs and damages up to policy limits, shielding the agency.
Another vital option comes through professional liability insurance guarding against errors, omissions, or negligence. If to investigator admits failing to uncover a key piece of exonerating evidence due to inadequate investigation rigor, the accused could sue for mental anguish and time served.
Operating uninsured opens the firm to financial catastrophe. Just one legitimate six-figure claim could bankrupt the agency and the owner through judgments garnishing future wages or forcing liquidations. Some scenarios exposing risk include:
- A confidential informant gets identified as being careless confirming their involvement. They sue seeking damages citing negligence compromising their anonymity & safety.
- Surveillance equipment valued at $250,000 gets stolen from the investigator’s vehicle. With no theft protection, the agency must eat huge losses and clients may allege negligent security practices.
- An employee improperly deletes key evidence the client demanded preserved for trial alleging misconduct. The client sues the firm for spoliation issues impacting their court case.
Getting insured simply begins by specifying coverage needs to agents. Provide the business start date, legal entity, intended services, locations, employees, and more. The agent then compares products and pricing, recommends terms, and facilitates application paperwork.
Underwriting approval timelines vary by carrier. But within 30 days of starting the quoting process, most investigators obtain bound policies securing crucial coverages to then operate with added peace of mind.
9. Create an Office Space
While technology enables remote work, having a professional office remains important for private eyes to consult clients and handle sensitive matters securely. The space should instill confidence while allowing confidential conversations and safely securing sensitive evidence if needed.
Working from home offers savings and convenience. Most clients expect meetings in an office, not personal living spaces. Homes also don’t offer ideal security for storing confidential documents long-term. Still, home offices work for consultants doing mainly remote client work initially. Costs are limited to dedicated furnishings, upgrades like soundproofing, and tax deductions for the space.
For now-commitment flexible offices, coworking spaces like WeWork provide handy alternatives. The collaborative environments allow easier networking opportunities to build local connections and alliances while establishing professional space for client meetings. Hot desk rentals often start around $300 monthly with private offices from $600 per month.
Conventional office suite rentals in commercial buildings offer the best blend of client site confidence, privacy, and flexibility for investigators. While basic Class B/C low-rise suites lease for $10-$15 per square foot, more prestigious Class A spaces lease from $30 per square foot in major metros. But quality offices project success when pitching six-figure case contracts with corporations or prominent individuals.
10. Source Your Equipment
Private eyes require quality equipment to gather evidence and conduct surveillance undetected. While costs add up acquiring new ge short-term, alternatives like buying used or renting help bootstrap operations.
The safest options come from reputable dealers like PI Gear or Detective Store stocking lathe test tools vetted for investigators. Shop categories like tracking devices, spy cameras, counter surveillance equipment tapping industry experts. Be ready to spend thousands for robust, warrantied options from leading manufacturers.
Savings arise when purchasing gently used equipment from other PIs. Check industry forums, Facebook Marketplace, or classifieds with inventory aggregators such as Craigslist for availability. Vet sellers, test functionality thoroughly before purchasing as limited if any return protections exist.
Renting Productions or investigators with limited but essential specialty gear needs can benefit from rentals. Sites like Spytronic offer long and, short-term short-term rentals of pricey thermal sensors, parabolic microphones, covert body cameras, and tiny GSM trackers avoiding permanent investment.
Long-term financing for major gear comes via leasing multiple tools bundled to target budgets and cash flow abilities. This avoids large lumpsum hardware purchases upfront. Investigators wanting the latest mobile command vehicle fully customized with observation capabilities, secure storage, and, computer workstations can lease over 36-60 months.
11. Establish Your Brand Assets
Crafting a distinctive brand builds awareness and trust for private eyes in competitive markets. Logos, websites, cards, and other branding elements boost memorability while conveying professionalism to stand out and wing clients.
Getting a Business Phone Number
Acquiring a dedicated business phone line brings credibility even for solo starting, Services like RingCentral offer toll-free and local number options, call routing, voicemail transcription, and smartphone integration for just $30/month. This lets investigators present clients with a professional presence answering calls seamlessly from anywhere.
Creating a Logo and Brand Assets
Logos encapsulate brands instantly – an iconic mark conveys the spirit of services better than words. When consistently applied to websites, signage, proposals, and gear – a thoughtfully designed logo boosts recognition. Looka’s AI logo maker helps create stylish icons for all industries and branding styles starting at $20.
Business Cards and Signage
Business card exchanges build connections, so having cards ready proves vital for networking g with clients, police, informants, or data providers. VistaPrint delivers 500 high-quality high-quality cards affordably showcasing logos, investigator names, services, contact infoUser-friendly, and specialty licenses held to amplify credibility.
Purchasing a Domain Name
The website’s domain ties closely to brand identity and discoverability. Using memorable .com names containing the agency name/location aids retention and search visibility. Domain registrars like Namecheap make registering domains for under $15 annually smart and simple. Once owned, a domain conveys permanence and commitment useful when pitching six-figure cases to discerning clients.
Building a Website
Sites demonstrate skills and professionalism for clients seeking discreet investigators online. User-friendly website builders like Wix enable anyone to create stylish sites themselves starting under $20 monthly. Those preferring custom site development can hire expert web developers cost-effectively at platforms such as Fiverr.
12. Join Associations and Groups
Joining regional professional groups and associations builds valuable connections for private eyes through referrals, advice sharing, and, collective credibility.
Area-specific organizations like the Associated Detectives & Security Agencies of Illinois open doorways. Membership fees give access to industry updates, ethical standards enforcement, and directories to cross-promote services with other properly vetted regional detectives. Exchanging wisdom across hundreds of cumulative years investigating local matters.
Event platforms like Meetup also list frequent regional tradeshows and networking mixers to glean insights from. Rubbing shoulders in person often culminates deals through built trusted relationships. Meetup lets you search for local events, or create your own.
Specialized online communities foster advice and inspiration. Private investigators interact in niche groups like Licensed Private Investigators swapping weathered tips on practical surveillance, and how to investigate within the scope of the local law. Hyper-local groups like Ask a Florida Private Investigator also emerged covering metro intricacies.
13. How to Market a Private Investigator Business
Implementing ongoing marketing proves pivotal for private eyes to cultivate visibility and caseloads long-term. Without deliberately promoting services, even the most skilled sleuths starve leads.
Tap Into Personal Networks
Leveraging existing relationships offers the most fertile starting point to demonstrate services. Satisfied early customers eagerly refer investigators who deliver results to affiliations needing assistance.
For example, an elated husband whose wife successfully tracked down his sister could connect the investigator to the Rotary Club he presides over. A short presentation to the group on services and capabilities seeds opportunities within the well-networked membership.
Digital channels provide scalable exposure to new audiences through:
- Search ads on Google spotlight relevant expertise to prospects in need by keyword, location, and intent signals. Tailored copy and landing pages convert lookers into clients.
- Facebook ads target demographics and interests and paint likely buyer personas. Retargeting nurtures prospects that already visited the site or downloaded offering guides.
- Building an authority blog sharing advice around challenges clients face draws organic search traffic plus demonstrates knowledge. Content can also be shared across platforms as a podcast.
- YouTube tutorials on subject matters like gathering online evidence legally increase discoverability on the video platform people turn to learn something new. Backlinks lead viewers back to the agency site.
- Retweet/share relevant posts of law practices, insurance providers, and investigator associations to expand visibility among lucrative institutional referral sources already Twitter active.
Conventional outlets still provide value albeit often involving higher associated costs than digital options:
- Office mailers containing recent client success stories, specialty capabilities,e lets be, and special discount offers incentivize local contacts to initiate cases.
- Well-positioned billboards on highways near higher-income neighborhoods and commercial centers expose services to daily commuters.
- Local radio spot ads by post-case need messages concise with calls to action around specific offerings air across moments key demographics listen most frequently for maximized impressions.
- Print advertising campaigns in regional legal journals and insurance industry trade publications align messaging alongside endemic media content they intrinsically value.
The most effective marketing initiatives involve testing across digital and traditional channels and measuring responses. A varied marketing approach allows private investigators to dip their toes in every facet of the potential market with clients from all demographics.
14. Focus on the Customer
Delivering white glove service proves pivotal for private eyes to stand out and drive referrals in crowded markets. Investigators can win enduring trust by handling anxious clients throughout sensitive cases.
Some ways to increase focus on your private investigator clients include:
- Proactively providing weekly progress reports even without breakthrough updates keeps clients informed and confident.
- Little thoughtful touches like sending thank you notes or flowers go a long way.
- Following up after a case to ensure everything is going smoothly for past clients.
- Offering referral rewards for sharing business details on social media feeds or via email.
In a constantly evolving business market, customer service is a driving factor for private investigators. Investigators get close to clients, uncovering private details of their lives and loved ones. Being able to trust a PI vastly increases the chances that a client will use your services again.