Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Outrunning the Monster...

  My parents were sticklers for punctuality. So as a kid, I concocted a motivational game to get myself home on time. I would imagine a huge, ugly monster chasing me through the streets of Akron, Ohio. I'll never forget that adrenalin-propelled rush of nearly flying over the pavement, feeling the monster's hot, rancid breath (I think it may actually have been the tire factories) while sprinting just ahead of his moldy grasp.

   Over the years, my monster has provided the motivation I've needed not only to succeed, but to thrive in the business world. He has served me well.

   His dogged pursuit is responsible for both my vocation and my avocation. The hairy beast chased me through college and graduate school, and finally into entrepreneurship. And I'm still running, but now for fitness; and not in Akron, but St. Petersburg, Florida.

   When I decided to start my own private-investigation firm in 1996, the monster breathed the specter of poverty. My new wife and I were living in a small apartment, whose rent, like everything else in our lives at the time, was paid by credit card. The monster helped me chase after business just to make sure we could eat and keep gas in the car and a roof over our heads.

   He also spewed the foul odor of self-doubt. I often lay awake at night wondering how a guy like me could possibly presume to run a business, especially against older, wiser (I thought!), and more experienced competition.

   But as I ran faster to escape the monster's clutches (he now sported a cheap, private-eye trench coat), I found myself learning a lot about how business operates. One particularly revealing lesson was that my "competition" was really only a little more gifted than my monster.

  For the most part, private investigators were what they always had been - retired police officers, special investigative unit (SIU) guys, or insurance adjustors. They often worked alone, used manual processes, and for sales collateral brandished their business cards.

   So while they clung to their Sam Spade model (and, for the most part, still do), I decided to innovate. While they snoozed between cases (feet up on the desk, of course), I learned about my marketplace - the claims and risk professionals who were purchasing investigative services. With the monster ever in the wings, I talked to people, read the trade journals, and found out what they really needed from an investigator.

   Then I decided that when fighting monsters, there is strength in numbers. So I took on partners, then employees. Every year, university criminal-justice programs were turning out legions of bright, energetic graduates, hungry for their first job and looking to learn the ways of surveillance. Why not hire them, pay them a decent salary, and teach them the ropes?

   And in order to keep my new employees working, why not find innovative ways of generating more business - by using what I had learned about our market, exhibiting at trade shows, producing sales literature that worked, by advertising, and by constantly generating new ideas for promoting the business? And why not self-publish a helpful booklet for clients about how surveillance works?

  We also made a commitment to using the hottest technology to run the business. (The monster was using none.) We outfitted our field investigators with the latest in video and wireless technology, trained them in its most efficient use, and sent them forth to generate revenue.

   But the real coup d'etat was the Internet. Our business is surveillance, which generally means video tapes accompanied by written reports. Our clients are claims and risk-management professionals, who spend entirely too much of their time on the telephone with claimants, physicians, attorneys and others.

   What better way to make surveillance information available to our harried and phone-weary clientele than to offer it on our secure Web site for them to peruse at their leisure - not only written reports but video snapshots and actual streaming video of the surveillance as well? Why rattle them with even more phone calls when e-mail and our Web site can provide them exactly what they need in a concise form, exactly when they need it? Why force them to store videotape cassettes when we can embed the video into the on-line record?

  Since we implemented the technology and juiced up the marketing, the monster has been quieter. He's not gone; in fact, I still hear his grunts when I look at our Web site and see how much remains to be done.

   And poverty is no longer the issue. The business, which now has grown to 85 employees, generated $4.1 million in revenues last year.

   But of course all those great investigators need to be paid, the office rent is due every month, and the technology doesn't come free.

   Where are my shoes? I can smell that ogre's breath right now.

(This was written by Robert DeRosa and myself in 2000.)

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