How to Start Up a Private Detective Agency

Got security experience? Awesome at digging below the surface? Or just super-nosy by nature? If you fancy yourself a Sherlock 3.0, you may want to think about becoming a private investigator. And the first piece of good news is that at the time of writing, there aren’t any formal courses you need to take to become a private investigator (PI) in the UK.

No formal qualifications required

Apparently not! While the Security Industry Authority (SIA) has reportedly been reviewing the need for formal PI training and licensing requirements (for a really, really long time), the official prerequisites are currently little more than personal skills, business skills, and a pair of glasses with fake moustache/nose attached. At FindMeAStartup, however, we can only write about right now. So, we suggest you check here on the SIA site and here on the UK government careers service to see if the PI service you’re planning to offer needs licensing.

No formal qualifications definitely doesn’t mean becoming a successful PI is a breeze. On the contrary, law enforcement, security, and/or army experience is generally considered the industry norm. According to our research, just under half of PIs come into the trade from the police force, where they develop many of the skills required for private investigative work. I say ‘many’ skills because PIs often need to take on a wide variety of different jobs, including but not limited to:

  • Evidence collection;
  • Tracking down and talking to witnesses;
  • Desk work (think background checks, fraud/financial history checks, etc.; and
  • Surveillance, photography, and counter-surveillance.

For these, you’ll also need a range of personal capabilities and attributes. Social skills and analytical abilities are two examples. And some of these attributes, like patience, can’t always be learned easily.

What are the pros and cons of being a PI?

Pros:

  • Your work will bring you a wide variety of jobs, from tracking down poodles to investigating unfaithful spouses;
  • You can call yourself a detective, chew on a pipe, stroke your beard, and do similar things that only PIs can do without being considered pretentious;
  • Maybe you could launch a low-budget CBS reality TV show based on your experiences;
  • Not Working For The Man (a common theme on FindMeAStartup);
  • You can help others; and
  • Some of the surveillance parts are probably really cool.

Cons:

  • Potential late nights and unpleasant working hours (probably in your car, too, for surveillance);
  • Doing the above, but in our British weather;
  • Ethically dubious clients;
  • Sifting through paperwork to rule out different possibilities/hunches/whatnot;
  • Having to break bad news to clients, e.g. “Your partner is not who you think he/she is”;
  • Tiresome clients – this one sucks big time, which you will already know if you have any consulting/freelancing experience.

Who will hire me?

Lots of PIs actually work for law companies, insurance providers, and big firms. Private clients – damsels in distress and the like – will probably be quite low on your list of customers.  There’s always a lot of good potential business, however, most of it will be civil stuff in the B2B realm. If investigating things like insurance fraud and suspicious, burnt out food vans doesn’t sound super-interesting, you may find things get dull fairly fast.

If you’re a bonkers Sherlock fan and avid reader of detective novels (like myself), you may already be bitterly disappointed. But if you have solid analytical and reasoning skills, a fastidious approach to fact-checking, and a willingness to work whenever duty calls, you could very much enjoy being a PI.

Can’t I just load up on spyware?

Well, no. That would just make you a high-tech curtain twitcher and half-arsed nuisance. While the field of private investigation has advanced significantly thanks to technology, there are real standards to aspire to if you want to be taken seriously. Which is where a diploma or course could come in handy. Here are some ideas:

IQ Level 3 Award for Professional Investigators

Association of British Investigators

The Association of British Investigators (ABI) is a training provider and industry body that embodies some of these standards. They offer training courses that you can even take via distance learning. Course content covers things like building up networks, legal ramifications and regulatory compliance, structuring investigations, and chain of evidence principles.

Level 3 Professional Investigators’ Course

Institute of Professional Investigators

Probably the biggest organisation worldwide (in the biz), the Institute of Professional Investigators provides a course with a very wide range of content. Expect to learn things like how to take statements properly, grill people effectively, document a scene of interest, and how best to run an investigation.

IQ Level 3 Certificate in Principles of Professional Private Investigation (RQF)

Academy of Professional Investigation

An entry-level qualification for novices, this course takes about three months if you do it part-time. You cover a fair amount of the later-on stuff too, like the serving process and witness statements. Also, there’s a whole module on starting your own business, which looks at stuff like marketing, sales, admin, and more. We haven’t physically ordered this course, but from the pictures, it looks like you could also be one of the last people on earth to receive learning materials on CD-ROM.

Licensing

I know we said there weren’t any licensing requirements – and it’s true (again, at the time of writing). However, joining a professional body can help you build up credibility, keep you in the loop, and open up many opportunities for ongoing career development. The UK Professional Investigators Network has both a visually exciting header on their home page, and a directory that you can be part of. People can search for your services by location or skill set, which is always handy.

How can I get my foot in the door?

In the States, at least, there are internships available. Presumably, these entail being a kind of ‘Dr Watson’ for a little while and learning on the job while you observe and assist a professional PI. On our side of the Atlantic, there are also some trainee positions to be found online. Based on our research, these work on a part-time, self-employed basis for existing detective agencies.

Some of the requirements include:

  • Basic IT literacy;
  • Driving license and own vehicle;
  • Verifiable work experience and references; and
  • Signing of non-disclosure or confidentiality documents.

Trainee jobs like these should have more of a pay structure (per se) than working as a freelance PI. If you choose to work as the latter or move into this later on, your pay will vary depending on how many clients you get, the size of each case, and how much they’re prepared to spend!

Starting your own PI business

Jumping forward a few steps, you need to register as a sole trader and dance the necessary foxtrots to keep all your own tax information together. If you plan to run your PI firm alongside your own Dr Watson, you need to start a partnership or get employers’ liability insurance. And whether you run from home or lease your own Baker Street offices, you will need car insurance. No hansom cab pursuits anymore, mate, which is a crying shame.

On the plus side, here are some example hourly rates you might expect to charge once you’ve earned yourself credibility. You will see that some of these require you to specialise, but we believe you will get there eventually!

Surveillance 1 hr: £40 – £75

Background record checks 1 hr: £50 – £100

Serving processes (as in “You’ve been served”): £84+ each case

Digital forensics 1 hr: £64

And, here are some things you’ll want to consider when designing your prices:

  • Petrol;
  • Time spent faffing around from A to B (not surveillance), setting up equipment;
  • Writing up reports, briefs, and so forth;
  • Time spent dealing with client enquiries that aren’t the initial consultation;
  • Other travel costs;
  • Rent (if not working from home);
  • Price of going incognito (e.g. you have to follow someone into a club that charges entry fees, you have to sit drinking coffees for many hours while watching someone, disguises if you’re lucky, etc.); and
  • A plastic bottle for those long nights spend doing surveillance from your car. (It’s not all glamorous!)

So, while the industry seems to be going great for the good PI – according to the Telegraph – it appears not to be the kind of thing you can just ‘dabble in’. If you’re competing for business against PIs who can offer stuff like fingerprint and DNA analysis, for example, you may only have a low-cost advantage on your side. And/or a really amazing deerstalker hat.

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