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FlimFlam

Trustify, previously known as FlimFlam, is a D.C.-based start-up that wants to make the process of hiring a private investigator (PI) — on demand, in small and inexpensive blocks of time to conduct surveillance — a whole lot simpler.

With the iPhone app or online platform that Trustify has created, anyone can simply type in the information about why they need to hire an investigator (such as “my partner is cheating on me”), give them an address where they want the investigator to go, and “sit back and wait” for photographs and other evidence. The first hour of surveillance investigation is $99, and each additional hour is $75.

While Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Betterment are examples of how technology has disrupted (and arguably, enhanced) the video rental business, retail, the music industry, and even the wealth management industry, respectively, this application of technology in the investigative business world caught me by surprise. But as a technology geek who has a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, when I first heard about this I was absolutely fascinated.

I got a chance to sit down with founder Danny Boice a few weeks ago at the Trustify offices in D.C. and learned that Boice’s big vision involves “making private investigator services affordable to the average consumer.” Boice was pretty candid about the fact that they have had to overcome some unforeseen challenges, but I couldn’t help but be excited for them and about the possibilities associated with this new approach. Despite other investigators’ apprehensions, I think Trustify can realize the very real opportunity to service an important niche in the investigative world.

Let’s face it (and my own experience verifies this), there is an enormous demand for these types of services — mostly from people who are “curious” about their partner or loved one. But the process of finding and hiring an investigator, especially for things like surveillance, is laborious. And, certainly for most “casual consumers” of PI services, finding a trusted private investigator is not always easy.

On the flip side, one of the most laborious processes for an investigator is doing the due diligence on the client/consumer. What if the consumer is a stalker? Or has ulterior motives?

Will this work?

I honestly have no idea. But I think this may close up a significant buyer-seller gap that exists in the market — allowing certain clients and PIs to “meet in the middle” when it suits their respective needs.

From a consumer’s perspective, I can certainly see the appeal. I personally see a market that is willing to shell out a few hundred dollars to satisfy their curiosity. While a typical investigative firm would probably not “leave their house” for just a few hours of surveillance, Trustify will satisfy the demand for quick on-demand services.

For the professionals, this new business model could help legions of solo operating investigative firms (and there are literally tens of thousands in the U.S.), pick up a few hours of work a week in between their full-scale surveillance investigations.

Why do I think this has a chance?

First, because the investigative business is absolutely ripe for disruption. The business is also highly fractured, with thousands of small players scattered throughout the country, which makes for an inefficient business model that is primed to have an entrepreneur (enter Boice!) come in and fix the inefficiencies and create a more marketable product.

This is not an industry in which you often see innovation, so it’s encouraging to see someone try to come in and shake things up a bit.

The reaction from other investigators?

Not surprisingly, some of the reactions from the investigative community have been pretty negative. “Too many problems to list,” one investigator told me. “Why don’t they [Trustify] need to be licensed?” asked another.

One thing’s for sure: Trustify will have many more unforeseen problems just like any new start-up does. But entrepreneurs are not ones to shy away from potential problems.

Do they really need to be licensed? I have heard more than one investigator question this, but I don’t see licensing as an issue. Trustify is working as the “middleman” between the investigators and the ultimate consumers. It’s like saying Angie’s List needs to be a licensed plumber because they refer business to plumbers.

As an investigator, I am not going to dismiss Trustify’s idea — and I am also not going to simply ignore them.

After all, I think it’s pretty clear that Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and Betterment are not passing fads.

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20 replies
  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    It will be interesting to see how long this lasts. You are not gong to get quality PI work for that cheap. The only PI’s that will take that are the ones that are desperate. Also, who’s going to do the work for only a 2 hour block? Definitely not worth it. I would say he’s trying to cheapen the industry, but I’ve never had a problem charging what I’m worth even if others try to play the low price game..

  2. Greg Choate
    Greg Choate says:

    I have completed several cases from Trustify. Everyone I dealt with were very professional and helpful. It is different from other referral services in that Trustify actually collects the money. The need for the Clients to be vetted by the Investigator did not seem very clear to the Clients and several were put off when I inquired as to why they wanted to locate the subject. The experience I had working with the Trustify folks was pleasant. I wish them luck.

  3. Glen Hellman
    Glen Hellman says:

    This may just be the dumbest application I’ve ever seen. How many times in one reputable persons life, like the kind of person who can afford to use a detective, does would a person require a private detective and do they need on so often that it must be an app and not found on Angies list? Just plain stupid.

  4. Mike Spener
    Mike Spener says:

    How will Trustify deal with certain locations for background checks where you can only verify information by having someone go in person to the courts? In California, you get a very shallow background check if you rely on databases only. Counties such as San Francisco and Alameda only have in-person court records.

    The only way I see the app working is if they get a smaller circle of PI vendors known for their good, reliable work. And to get those professional interested, they will have to pay them well.

    Ever take the low bid on a contractor or having your house painted? I did once. Disastrous results. Local professional private investigators with years of experience cannot be replaced.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      I don’t think that this is a replacement for a professional investigator with years of experience. Just like any professional service, I see that there is a need for high quality professional services, and for others who may be more cost sensitive, but no less curious.

      Intelius and other online investigative databases makes hundreds of millions of dollars from people who are interested in finding out information about people. I think we can all agree that they are not complete compared to what a “professional” can come up with, but there is clearly a market and a need for this. Based on my own personal experience with consumers, many of them are not capable of paying my fees.

      If a $19.99 tax return from H&R Block and a professional tax return from KPMG; or a $10 contract on LegalZoom and a professional contract from White & Case; or a $13 local barber haircut and the $300 salon haircut can co-exist, I think “professional” investigators and Trustify can exist too.

      Personally, I see room for everyone. But that’s not how most other investigators are seeing it.

  5. Doug Wolfe
    Doug Wolfe says:

    The next logical step in this business model is to post a job and have investigators bid on it. Low bid wins the job.

    We once had an appliance store in Baltimore whose owner advertised as “The Cheapest Guy in Town.” They went out of business.

  6. Shawn Schooley
    Shawn Schooley says:

    Thoughtful comments all around.

    From my background in organizational development, my main concern would be effective communication between client and investigator(s).

    Research and experience suggest that ineffective communication is the biggest problem in most organizations despite people thinking it is something else (e.g., lack of high-performance teams, the Dilbert principle, poor management, etc.) (See Chris Argyris’ book “Strategies for Overcoming Defensive Routines”).

    In my firm one of the value-additives is custom tailoring a surveillance strategy after detailed conversations with the client. Another benefit is updating the client via text message in real time with pertinent information. I am not sure that this service will adequately address these elements.

    Pricing is a whole other issue as has already been pointed out; not to mention retainer monies. Which, in turn, brings up the concern of quality of work. We can all relate to the listserve emails asking for a local PI to serve a process or conduct surveillance but at a fraction of the true costs of these services; invariably, having the work ultimately done by those PIs who are more desperate for work.

    Finally, as mentioned already, corporate and legal work are higher potential income specialties and these folks typically like to have an established relationship with their fact investigators. Also, not to mention you’re not getting corporate work without having general liability as well as errors and omissions insurance.

    I think innovation in the PI field is important. However, more important is professionalism and ethics. I would rather see more focus on these than a service such as this one being discussed. BTW, last year, domestic surveillance (i.e., spousal infidelity and child welfare) accounted for 40% of my firm’s business.

  7. K. Chase
    K. Chase says:

    Gumshoes.org–exact same site as FlimFlam. There just might be another domain name to flood the market with this service.

  8. E Welch
    E Welch says:

    Brian, very interesting post, as always – will mention it on my French-language blog hosted by the daily Liberation. I share your enthusiasm for new technologies and your belief that the investigations business is highly inefficient as it is and could use some “disruption”.

    A very secure app to coordinate the vast network of PIs who know each other from association meetings and conferences, have subbed for each other, have vetted each other and need punctual help with a task (a quick door knock, a call in Spanish, a specific search) could be potentially very useful. No more pleas on listservs: “is anyone in TOWN X right now who could assist with a surveillance in an hour?” Of course, as I type this, a flurry of potential problems come to mind. Still, it would be awesome to exchange specialized services with trusted colleagues, in a fluid manner, using some integrated Paypal function for instance.

    But re: FlimFlam (not the best name, imho) I just wonder how they will 1/vet clients properly 2/attract enough quality, licensed investigators willing to perform tasks for a low rate (the rate advertised on their website is $35/h) especially in metropolitan markets and states such as NY where you go though hoops to get licensed and collect sales tax.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks Emmanuelle!

      The rate is something that they are certainly going to have to figure out, there is no doubt. From a consumer perspective, I can certainly see the need to have a service like this can be completed at the touch of a few buttons, but whether the fee structure will make sense is something to be seen.

    • Ruben Roel
      Ruben Roel says:

      To answer the first question about the network for private investigators: The Private Investigations industry, as a whole, is very sensitive and frugal. I deal with investigators on the daily basis through Investigator Marketing, and it’s not easy.

      When we finalized CaseSwap.com, a listserv system similar to the one you mentioned, we ran into issues with investigators expecting an un-realistic ROI. At $10 per month, they wanted to receive at minimum 10 cases – that’s a 1,000% ROI.

      A system like the one you are mentioning – to have a vetted network of private investigators – is something that we’ve though of before. But there are costs associated with the network. As the network grows, the price of maintenance and bandwidth/space will also increase. These costs are going to have to be passed down to the members, or to advertisers: both of which are not appreciated by the PI community. Some people don’t want to pay, some people don’t want to see advertisements. This is a problem that every website or service provider faces.

      In regards to the FlimFlam pricing, they’re going to run into similar issues. They are tapping into a market that wants a lot for free, while using investigators that have the “you get what you paid for” mentality. $25 per hour (which is the maximum an investigator makes from FlimFlam) is too low when you take into account report writing time, drive time, toll roads, parking fees, insurance fees, license fees, etc. At the end of the day, your profit margin would be in the low $14 per hour – then you have take out taxes, drive time back home, vehicle maintenance, equipment maintenance, and you start to further cut into your profit.

      At that rate, you can work for a national PI Agency for as low as $18 per hour + benefits and less stress than what you would run into with FlimFlam. I agree with Bryan, this is going to disrupt the industry, but they have to figure out their pricing structure first.

      The idea is phenomenal, the pricing structure in place is only going to attract new investigators. It would be good to see FlimFlam implement a system that allows investigators to pick their own rates and allow the clients to rate their services. “Bob is only $35 per hour, Bill is $80 – here is why”

      • Brian Willingham
        Brian Willingham says:

        Excellent points Ruben. I too have found the investigative industry in general to be pretty “frugal” (although I might use some stronger language).

        I really like the idea of different rates for different investigators. I think they will have to test various payment structures and see which one works best, but I think the idea of having varied rates is an interesting one.

      • Jeff
        Jeff says:

        I’ve been doing this a while, I don’t see it even creating a ripple in the industry. It will just be bargain shoppers getting hard up investigators for little jobs that aren’t worth doing. It may be a niche that will last a while, but it won’t even make a difference to established PI’s. Trustify will only attract the type of tire kickers good PI’s wouldn’t take on as clients anyway. I’m not demeaning it, there may be a market for cheap clients and cheaper PI’s, they can have it.

  9. David Childe
    David Childe says:

    http://www.fastcompany.com/3045831/from-hobby-to-start-up/this-startup-is-turning-military-smarts-and-your-dirty-underwear-into

    Here’s one that has a better chance of working. One thing Uber and all the similar operations are successful is that their customers are low dollar, high volume users. This laundry app is in that mold. Investigative services are higher dollar and infrequently used. I don’t think this Uber-model is geared for that. I’m going with the dirty underwear company above!

  10. David Childe
    David Childe says:

    I try to keep an open mind about things and I have on this one, yet I feel strongly that it has little chance of working. The main problem is that it only addresses a fractional portion of the total market for private investigation services. The cheating spouse surveillance market is probably less than 5% of the total. I avoid it like the plague. So do most serious investigators. Not only are the clients difficult and unproven consumers of investigative services, but the demand is dwindling and hourly prices are plummeting. Most states are now no-fault divorce. Most investigators in this market charge only 35-70/hour, so this firm’s pricing is already too high anyway. For an investigator to make a good living, he must address the business and legal markets. Yet these client bases make their own decision on investigators after a thorough vetting process.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Despite the fact that most states are no-fault divorce, curiosity seems to get the best of most people. I see the potential in services other than cheating spouses.

    • Jeff Scanlon
      Jeff Scanlon says:

      I have to agree with Karen Ferris, You do only get what you pay for. Also David Childe “The cheating spouse %” far exceeds the “less than 5% you pointed out, maybe a conservative 70 %! Where did you get an estimate like that??? My own comes from 30+ years of experience and academic.

      • Brian Willingham
        Brian Willingham says:

        I think it’s hard to come up with a real number, but I am certain that 70% is way to high. I personally haven’t done a cheating spouse case in more than 10 years, and most of the firms I know and work with, it accounts for only a fraction of their work.

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