The first step to starting a private investigation business is to obtain a private investigator license for the state in which you plan to operate. For more detailed information on licensing, visit our Private Investigator Licensing section.
Now that You’re Licensed
Now that you’re officially licensed in the state to conduct private investigations, the next step is to start and run your own private investigation business. Learn about business licensing and insurance coverage requirements. In addition, learn about the equipment and supplies you’ll need, how to establish an online presence, website, social media, email and more.
Determine if you Need a Business License
Many states require a business license in addition to a private investigator license. Check with the state licensing authority to learn about the specific requirements for your state.
Get Insurance: Protect Your Private Investigation Business
Insurance requirements for private investigators will vary from state to state and will also vary based on the type of work being performed. In most cases, private investigators will need the same type of coverage as any business, but there are some unique situations to consider. Due to the nature of private investigation work, you could find yourself liable in a number of situations, such as bodily injury, financial losses, negligence, auto accidents, worker’s compensation, and more.
The types of insurance a private investigator might need include:
- General Liability Insurance – General liability insurance provides coverage for bodily injury or property damage to another person.
- Commercial Automobile Liability Insurance – If you’re doing surveillance work or searching for missing persons, it is likely that you’ll spend a lot of time on the road. Auto insurance will provide coverage for auto accidents.
- Workers Compensation – If you have employees, you may be required to carry this type of insurance to cover accidents that your employees have during the course of doing business.
- Property Insurance – This type of insurance will only be necessary to protect the building in which you operate, if you own the building itself.
There are other specialized types of insurance that may be necessary depending on the type of work being performed. Discuss the details with your agent and lawyer, and contact multiple insurance companies to get price quotes before making a decision.
Decide Whether You Need Office Space
A very important decision you’ll need to make is whether to setup a physical office space. Having an office will provide you with a place to conduct your private investigation business, meet with clients, interview witnesses, and store materials, equipment and supplies. In addition to its functional benefits, a physical office space may help promote your business, especially if it is located in a high traffic area. Street and window signage will serve as important marketing and advertising tools to let people know about your business and your services. The downside of having a physical office space is, of course, the cost. The potential expenses associated with maintaining an office include: rent, utilities, equipment, supplies, parking and other expenses.
On the other hand, a private investigation business can be run without a physical office. A private investigator can run the business out of a personal residence. Meetings with clients and witnesses can be conducted in convenient public places such as restaurants and coffee houses. The money saved from not having to pay for an office can be redirected to marketing and advertising efforts, or toward additional profit for your business.
Buy Equipment and Supplies
Whether you decide to run your business in a physical office space or out of your home, you’ll need to purchase equipment that will be used to run your private investigation business. The type of equipment and supplies you need will depend largely on the types of services you plan to provide. Following are some ideas for the basic items you’ll need to get started:
- Computer or laptop – If you plan to offer data retrieval services, background checks, missing person locates, or similar services, you’ll need a computer with an internet connection. In addition, you’ll need a computer to prepare reports for clients, to develop marketing and advertising materials, manage your website and social media accounts and send/receive email.
- Computer accessories and peripherals – In addition to a computer/laptop, you may need peripheral devices such as a printer, scanner and fax machine. Consider how you’ll be communicating with clients before investing in this equipment.
- Camera – If you plan to offer surveillance services, you’ll need to invest in a high quality digital quality camera. When you evaluate various camera models, consider how and where the camera will be used. You’ll need a camera that is portable, durable, takes high quality photos and has key features like and optical zoom. And don’t forget the extras such as a durable camera case, spare batteries, memory cards and special filters and lenses.
- Office supplies – You will need a supply of office materials such as pens and pencils, notepads (for taking notes), copier/printer paper, etc. I recommend buying these as you need them. Don’t tie up your cash flow in office supply inventory.
- Smartphone – Private investigators spend a lot of time communicating, especially on the phone. Investigators spend time on the phone with clients, law enforcement, attorneys, information providers, courthouses and others. A high quality, durable smartphone is a necessity for private investigative work. In addition to making calls, investigators use smartphones to run a variety of apps to perform searches, navigate around town, send and receive email, etc. Also, your smartphone camera will serve as an important backup if you don’t have your digital camera with you.
- Badge – In most states, private investigators are required to carry a copy of their private investigator license, but they are not required to carry a badge. However, some private investigators choose to carry a badge as a form of proof and prestige. However, it is important to note that carrying a badge carries no official “weight” and does not mean you have any special capabilities or authority.
Sign up with Database Information Providers
If you plan to offer data retrieval services, such as background checks, missing person searches, social media investigations, and employment history reports, you’ll need access to a database information service, such as:
- Accurint, from LexisNexis
- Clear for Investigations, from Thomson Reuters
- IRB Search
- TLOxp, from TransUnion
Investigate these companies to determine the solutions you’ll need for your particular menu of services. Contact the service providers that best meet your needs and schedule a demo.
Establish an Online Presence
Establishing an online presence for your business is one of the most important steps in setting up your private investigation business. An online presence includes your business website, email account, social media accounts and directory listings. These will represent your business twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year, so it is important to get them right.
Create a Website
There are many options to setting up a website. The most economical route is to create your own using a free service such as Blogger, Wix.com or Weebly.com. These sites offer easy-to-follow wizards for setting up a website with pre-built templates and themes. These sites also provide web hosting services, so you don’t have to deal with that separately. Additional costs are necessary when you decide to upgrade of install add-ones. I recommend using these sites if you’re new to the web.
If you are comfortable with basic website design and development, you can save money by doing everything yourself. With this approach, you’ll need to:
- Register a domain name through a registrar
- Establish an account with a web-hosting company
- Install a content management package, such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, etc.
- Create and configure email accounts
- Build website content, add photos, links to other sites, etc.
If you have the budget, hire a web development company to create a website to your specifications
I recommend that you setup a website first. Many web hosting providers include a certain number of email accounts with any hosting package. The primary benefit of using the email account associated with your website hosting is the domain name will be the same. For example, if your domain name is www.floridabestinvestigator.com, then your email account would use the same domain name, such as [email protected] This has two benefits. First, every email you send will help promote your website. Second, it is far more professional. It suggests that you are running a serious business, rather than running a “fly by night” operation with a cheap email service provider.
Setup Social Media Accounts
As a private investigator, social media allows you to promote yourself, your ideas, your business and the services you provide to a worldwide audience. There are hundreds of social media networks, but I recommend focusing your efforts just a few: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and Google Plus. There are hundreds of social networks, but I recommend focusing your efforts on just a few. Create an account in your company’s name on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. If you plan to post a lot of photos related to your business, add Instagram and Pinterest to the list.
For each of these networks, do the following:
- First, create an account in your company name
- Fill out the entire profile to describe your company and services
- Add photos to enhance the look and feel of your profile
- Search the network for private investigators and those in related industries, such as process servers, attorneys, bodyguards, security guards, etc.
- Send requests to connect to start building your network
- Post regularly on each network. Posts can include such things as: work you recently completed, website updates, interesting investigation news or articles, etc.
For more information, read our article How to Use Social Media to Promote Your Business.
There are a number of good private investigator directories are available online at a reasonable cost. These directories can help potential clients learn about your services and can be a solid source of business. I recommend signing up with at least one directory for a period of one year. During that time, evaluate the website traffic, emails and overall private investigation business you receive. Then, renew your listing only if the business you receive exceeds the cost of the directory.
Join an industry association
I highly recommend joining a industry association to help promote your private investigation business. Private investigation industry associations are organizations promote the private investigation profession. They can be focus at the state and/or the national level. In addition, there are many that focus on specific aspects of the industry, such as forensics, etc.