private investigator lessons

This month marks the 15th year that I have been a private investigator. Fifteen years ago, I was riding in a blimp taking photographs of the World Series. Shortly after, in a strange twist of fate, I was sitting in cars for hours-on-end doing surveillance, at one point tracking the steps of what we thought was a homegrown terrorist.

Since that time, I have picked up a thing or two.

1 ABL (Always Be Learning) – Over the past 15 years, a new breed of private investigators has emerged: investigators with research skills to find information that other people cannot, who search through the depths of the Web, investigative databases, government repositories, public records and court filings. I like to say that I’ve been undergoing on-the-job-training for the past 15 years. There are no textbooks for what I do. I make it up as I go along and have learned mostly by doing and observing others.

2 Know Thyself – It’s taken me 15 years in this business and more than 40 years in my personal life, but I now have a pretty good understanding of what I am good at and what I am not. I know where my strengths lie and where I can use some help. And I am not shy about making these things known.

3 Differentiate Yourself – Sometimes being different is a good thing, especially when everyone else is practically the same. I could just be ordinary, but what’s the fun in that?

4 Authenticity – Just last week, I got two new clients because of my “genuine” biography and my “authentic” video that put a face to the business. Authenticity is not something you can fake. You are who you are, and you should show it.

5 Stick to Your Principles – Even a whiff of any unscrupulous behavior might undermine a client’s best interest, my reputation and my license.

6 Be Helpful – Something as simple as “being helpful” has found me thousands of blog followers, countless new friends and made me the top investigator on Twitter. Good things happen when you share and lend a helping hand.

7 Don’t Be Everything to Everyone – Being great at a few things is much more important to me that being mediocre at a bunch of things. Do great stuff.

8 Do Work You Are Proud OfSeth Godin says it best: “You can’t give the client what he wants. You have to give the client work that you want your name on.” I refuse to do work that I am not proud of, even if that means passing on a case.

9 You Are Never the Smartest (or Dumbest) Person in the Room – Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions in front of a bunch of smart people. Chances are you are not the only one with the same stupid question (and chances are that those other people are not as smart as you think).

10 Don’t Stop Thinking of New Ideas – What will the investigative business look like 15 years from now? I don’t have a clue. But I know that it’s going to be nothing like what it is in 2016. I can’t predict the future, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking of new ideas about where we will be heading.

11 Adapt – Fifteen years ago, the firm that I worked with was doing mostly surveillance and insurance disability and life insurance claims. That work has all but disappeared. The investigative business is constantly changing; investigators need to adapt too.

12 Embrace Technology – Look around you. Technology is changing the world. With a few clicks, you can do just about anything from a computer or mobile device. You can now hire a private investigator through an app. While most investigators are up in arms about the idea, I say, “Welcome to the 21st century.”

13  Follow the Facts – It’s a simple mantra that most investigators follow, but it can get lost in the shuffle. Making decisions or opinions based on rumors, gossip, innuendo and half-truths is a dangerous game.

14 Be Inspired – Sometimes it seems I never stop working, but I do take some time to reflect and get influenced by my children, famous chefs and baseball. You never know what may inspire you.

15 Do Great Work – The most important lesson I have learned is that doing great work is the single most important thing I do. Work that I am proud of. Work that I am excited to get up in the morning to do.

16 Be Skeptical – Investigators are a skeptical bunch. Sometimes too skeptical. Being skeptical doesn’t mean you have to express doubt about everything or refuse to accept any fact, but you should look at things with a critical eye. Prioritize good facts and evidence over preconceptions and biases.

17 Persistence, Patience and Luck (I know, that’s three “lessons”) – I got an email from a client just the other day about how “amazing” we were when we were able to find the client’s long lost relative, halfway across the world that they didn’t even know existed. The truth of the matter is, more often than not, investigative “home runs” are really a disguise for a little know-how, persistence, patience and luck.

Guide to Background Investigations

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12 replies
  1. Edmund Magdziarek
    Edmund Magdziarek says:

    My biggest lesson in over 10years of practising as a Private investigator in the UK is to treat everybody well. All to often I see agents speak badly of Respondents in cases, or the subject of an enquiry.
    You never know when just treating someone respectfully can come back to reward you.

    I had one respondent I had to serve 3-4 times. He was extremely evasive and the client paid a premium to ensure we got him. Upon taking the time to speak to him (rather than just throwing the court papers at him) he eventually gave us a way of contacting him in future on the understanding this wasn’t disclosed to anyone else.
    Needless to say the next 3 times we served him were efficient and also saved our client money.

    Another occasion I was recommended in a matrimonial case by an old subject of an enquiry who basically told a friend, “Use EJM, their evidence had me screwed in court so they should get you what you need”. A strange endorsement, but an endorsement none the less.

    Good luck for the next 15 years in business!

  2. Lizzie Sierra
    Lizzie Sierra says:

    Thank you for your tips. I am just starting out in the industry (well trying to get a job or work experience with someone at least), I hope that in a few years I can write something to inspire others. Cheers!
    One area I am very interested in and I don’t think is too big yet, in Australia at least, is elderly abuse. Being a nurse and a PI, I think I could really do some good work to help those elderly that are being abused, whether they are in aged care facilities, or in the care of family. I know it happens and it devastates me. I don’t think too many people are aware that they can have their worries investigated if they think their elderly relatives are not being treated with the respect, compassion and dignity they deserve. One day I hope to change that.

  3. David Childe
    David Childe says:

    Useful information for both professional and overall well being. As always, thanks! This is a difficult profession to learn via textbook, agreed. Most of the books out there are either very basic or written from an academic standpoint for paralegals. I found some of the best practical information to come from Dean Beers, Valerie McGilvrey, Tamara Thompson, Francine Koehler’s podcast, ThePrivateEyeNetwork, and this website. Even advanced investigators will keep learning from these people and sources. McGilvrey and Koehler are particularly amazing and so generous with what they do.

  4. C. Hope Clark
    C. Hope Clark says:

    I love this list. I’m an author of mysteries and follow you to learn, however, this list applies to writers as well. I’m sharing this in my March 25 newsletter. Thanks so much!

  5. Ryan Johnston
    Ryan Johnston says:


    Congratulations on finding your niche and being able to sustain over time. It might be cliche, but if you love what you do, is it really work? I would add one item to your list, that I believe in very strongly. Investigators are seekers of the TRUTH, which does not always help our clients case and in some instances actually hurts our clients case, but if it is fact and truthful fact, I will report it, without bias.
    Ryan Johnston (30+ years surveillance experience)
    Night Moves of Denver
    Private Investigations

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