Tomorrow, the 1st of March 2016, marks my five-year anniversary as an investigator. I set up my first investigation business when I was still working at my old job (with their permission), and I’ve been through several iterations since.
Now, five years in, I’ve settled into my investigative identity. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
It’s Nowhere Near As Glamourous As It Sounds
…but people won’t believe that when you tell them.
I’ll be honest: although a large part of the reason I went into investigation was because I cared about it and thought I’d be good at it, another part was because it just sounded so cool. I had visions of myself as a tattooed, leather-clad badass on a motorbike, tyres screeching around the country on my mission to fight the Bad Guys.
I swiftly realised this wasn’t the case. For one thing, I don’t have a motorbike. You do have to be a bit of a badass, but a large proportion of your time as an investigator will be spent on admin. Because if at least 50% of your time isn’t spent doing your admin when you run your own business, then you’re not going to be running it for long.
The job itself isn’t that glamourous, either. Sure, it feels great when you crack a case, and there have been one or two occasions when I’ve felt like I’m in a TV show. But most of the time, it just feels kind of like any other job. Which is why you have to really love it if you’re going to make it your career.
Other people, however, will continue to insist that your job makes you 50% superhero, 50% [insert their favourite fictional investigator here].
Finding Clients Is Hard
Setting up in any new business is difficult. You’ll always have the problem of trying to land your first few customers, asking yourself whether you should give discounts (and if so, how much).
But finding clients in a business where people won’t recommend you even if you’re good is much harder. It’s possible that your ex-clients will recommend you to new people sometimes, of course. If their BFF thinks their partner is cheating, for example. But it’s not the kind of conversation people generally have at the dinner table with their wider acquaintances – unlike, say, if you work in graphic design or copywriting.
The main way to get clients is through networking with other investigators. People who are already set up, but who might sometimes need to subcontract someone to help out with something. And the best way to do that is to find a niche that not everyone is good at. I work with a few established investigation firms who don’t have specific tech/cyber/computer departments, for example. I work with others who do have tech people, but don’t have social media people.
Find your niche, carve it deep, and network like you own the room.
Surveillance? Not So Much.
I’m going to caveat this by saying that the specific type of investigation I specialise in – online investigations and cybercrime – means I probably do much less surveillance than the average investigator.
I had fully expected to spend a lot of my life waiting for things and looking at stuff. Indeed, when I first set up as an investigator, I was really worried that my lack of a car would stop me from being able to do my job. Every investigation article I read, every forum I visited, every person I spoke to, told me over and over again that I’d need a vehicle to do surveillance from.
Five years in, though, and I’ve done surveillance maybe twice. It’s always been possible to do it from a coffee shop, or somewhere similar, and I’ve never felt that the lack of a car was a problem.
Now, if you specialise in insurance claim fraud, or benefit fraud, or cheating partners, this will probably be different for you. But if you’re a cybercrime investigator with a specialism in child protection, not so much.
People Will Want You To Tell Them Stuff. Don’t.
Related to the above assumption that your job is incredibly cool, many people will want to hear juicy details of your latest cases.
Sharing these is a very, very bad idea.
I’ve come under fire for it from friends: “Oh, of course you can tell us! It’s not like you work for the CIA!”
True. But just imagine that you’re in a room, having dinner with a bunch of your friends. Imagine that you’re trying really hard to keep smiling and seem fine, because you’re not sure if your partner is cheating on you. You’ve been thinking about hiring an investigator to find out. But then your friend, who already is an investigator, starts sharing war stories over dessert.
You’re not going to be so keen to hire one now, are you?
And beyond that, imagine being the person the stories are about. Investigators by definition have access to some of the most private elements of people’s lives. Clients have to trust us in order for us to be able to help them. I’ve often ended up knowing all sorts of superfluous details that may or may not have been useful to a case.
But it’s not my business to share that. It’s my business to use it to build a case, and solve an investigation, and then to shred the evidence (literally, usually) and move on.
I know it’s tempting, especially when you start out. You’ll want to share your stories. You’ll bask in how badass people think you are. You’ll reason with yourself that it doesn’t matter if you share details of Case A, because there’s no way your friends will ever meet the person.
But in the long run? It’s not worth it.
Training Is Hard, Expensive, And Constantly Updating
…especially if you work in digital forensics or a related field.
It’s not really surprising (and indeed, certainly not a bad thing) that you can’t just waltz into investigation through a side door and hope for the best. You have to do some training, even if you know you already have the kind of mind that will be good at investigating stuff.
The initial training course I did wasn’t expensive at all, really – a couple of hundred pounds, if I remember correctly. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought to myself, “I can live with this level of spending.”
But that was while I still had my old job, and therefore a regular paycheque. It was also just the initial bit, which teaches you the basics.
Once you’ve gone through that, done a bit of investigative work (probably through shadowing another investigator or team), and then decided where you’d like to specialise, shit gets real.
Training suddenly ramps up to being expensive in terms of both time and money. The child protection courses I’ve been on haven’t been massively pricey on the whole, but they have been intense and time-consuming.
If you decide to specialise in anything relating to technology, good luck. The pricing there is steep, and only gets steeper the further you get into your career. It’s not unusual to have to drop several thousand pounds into a training course, which is small compared to a university degree, but gargantuan when you’re barely scraping rent each month.
And it’s not just the courses themselves you have to think about. They’ll almost certainly be in a place you don’t live in. I moved to London partly for this reason: it’s easy to get to other places, and a lot of training is held here. But you will at times find yourself locked away in a dingy basement in Spain, or getting up before sunrise to walk through Slough to the industrial estate where a computer filled with example cases awaits you.
You’ll need to pay for travel, hotels, meals while you’re there. You can expense it, of course. But expensing it just means it doesn’t get taxed, not that you don’t have to pay for it at all.
Like any work-from-home business, you have to really love it. You’ll expend time, money, energy and large chunks of your social life on building your career.
But in the end, if you really want to do it?
It’s totally worth it.
Happy fifth investigatorversay to me!