How I Built My Business: Probert Investigations
This post was copied from a website I used to maintain called How I Built My Business. It’s now here for posterity.
Company: Probert Investigations
Years Active: 2000–2010 (sold)
Location: Cottonwood Heights, Utah
Business Builder: Ronald Probert (primary) and Brandon Pack
HIBMB: How did the business get started?
Brandon: My dad was a retired police officer who realized there was a big need in investigating auto accidents. If two people got into an accident and there was a disagreement over whose fault it was, my dad and I would investigate things like skid marks to determine how fast the driver was going, light to determine visibility, and whatever else was needed to determine who was at fault. This turned into a business.
HIBMB: Who were your clients? Police departments?
Brandon: We were hired by the attorneys or insurance agencies representing a driver involved in an accident. We were hired to figure out who was truly at fault, testify as expert witnesses in court, and reconstruct what happened in the accident. If you claimed a neck injury from your accident, we might follow you, take pictures of you golfing, and nullify your claim. Those types of things. We did some other things like follow cheating spouses.
HIBMB: Did you have an office?
Brandon: Yes, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
HIBMB: What made you want to be a private investigator?
Brandon: Part of it was that it was interesting work for me. I was in a physics major at the University of Utah and originally had plans to take over the business and do it forever but it didn’t pan out that way. When I first started out with this business, we needed some credibility and for that we needed credentials. We needed to be licensed and bonded. I had to go buy a bond and be licensed by the state of Utah to become a private investigator to follow people and do the things that we did.
HIBMB: What was the bond for?
Brandon: It was kind of an insurance policy in case I was sued.
HIBMB: What kind of requirements did you need to get a private investigator license?
Brandon: To be a private investigator, at least in the state of Utah, you have to first be an apprentice. You need to work underneath a well-seasoned investigator. You can’t just go out and get a license. You have to find an agent who has a license and they agree to mentor you for some amount of time before you can apply for a license.
HIBMB: So your “master” was your dad?
HIBMB: Did you need any formal training?
Brandon: I was never required to go to any classes or anything like that. Before you get your license you have to demonstrate an understanding of the laws. You have to go before the state Department of Criminal Justice and you have to be fingerprinted so they have official records of your fingerprints in case you show up at a crime scene. You have to renew the license regularly and show proof that you’re still working in the field while you hold the license otherwise you lose it. I was also a member of the Private Investigators Association of Utah which was a great organization and did some professional development through that group by attending some classes. They provide courses and training. Most of the training we went through was not about how to follow people or anything like that; it was about collision forensics — what happens in an accident, how people fly through windshields, coefficients of friction of certain types of asphalts and things of that nature.
HIBMB: Did you have other employees?
Brandon: Yeah, at the time I was there we had an office manager, an assistant, another investigator, my dad, and myself.
HIBMB: What was most of your work like?
Brandon: Most of my work was collecting data. I would go to the scene of an accident and measure skid-marks, draw diagrams of the intersection, measure time to stoplights, and take measurements of light at certain times of the day to determine visibility. I would go find the car or whatever vehicle it was — we had plane and train accidents too — and take pictures and measurements. I would also interview the people that were in these accidents.
HIBMB: Did you ever testify in court?
Brandon: I never had to. Usually that was my dad’s role since I was young and credibility with these attorneys mattered. When my dad could say, “I was a police officer for 30+ years and I know what I’m talking about” it would carry more weight than a kid who was still in college. We would be deposed by attorneys in most cases. It was pretty rare that we had to be in court but it did happen.
HIBMB: What kind of tools did you use on the job?
Brandon: We got hired for a lot of odd jobs. For example, there was a business whose owner thought the employees were stealing money so they hired us to find out and we would set up cameras, microphones, and sting operations. It’s not as spy-ish as you might think. We did have things like pagers or cell phones that were really recording devices and we’d try to catch what people were doing.
HIBMB: Did you inform law enforcement before you went to go follow someone?
Brandon: No. We just did it. It was mainly just waiting and taking pictures.
HIBMB: Any other good stories?
Brandon: Not as many as you would think. I thought I would at first but most of the time I ended up sitting in my car at strip clubs for hours. I would just wait for people to come out. I used to carry around a Sega Game Gear or whatever it was at the time and just play video games in my car waiting for these people to come out of the house or the strip club or whatever. I got super bored to be honest.
One time I followed an airline pilot. He thought his wife was cheating on him but he didn’t seem to care about that. He wanted to know if his kids were being left alone while she was out doing whatever the hell she was doing while he was working. He said to not follow her to see what she was doing but instead to stay and watch the house and see if the kids were by themselves or if she gets a babysitter or a neighbor to come over.
I did have one man who wanted to marry a woman who was a stripper. He was concerned she was providing “additional services” so he wanted me to go in and try to solicit these services. I passed on the opportunity.
HIBMB: Did you ever get to say “niner” or “tango down”?
Brandon: Ha! Yes, but not officially. Only because I thought it would be fun. This was not required by law or anything but I did have to get a concealed carry permit because when I was following cheating spouses there was always a chance that we would be discovered and they might get disgruntled and retaliate. At least in our company we required that you get a concealed carry permit to make sure you were protected.
I had a police officer that stopped me one time. I was pulling out my driver’s license and he saw my P.I. license and asked me if I was carrying a concealed weapon. I said no. He said, “Well you should because what you’re doing is far more dangerous than what we do.” I was a little surprised that he thought that.
HIBMB: Do you consider the business successful?
Brandon: Yes. It was kind of a lifestyle business. It wasn’t something like a big .com that you would build up and sell for a lot of money. We ended up selling it to another guy and I ended up going down the IT path after that. The business is still up and running. There aren’t a lot of people doing what we did. For a long time we had one office in Salt Lake City and one in Las Vegas because we had so much business out of those two areas. The new owner services cases all over the United States. They continue growing. I think they’ve hired a bunch of other physics experts and other people to help build computer animations and things like that to ensure everything is done correctly.
HIBMB: How did you acquire new clients?
Brandon: Mostly word of mouth. We did not do much advertising at all.
HIBMB: Word of mouth through attorneys?
Brandon: Yes, attorneys. It got to the point where the best way to make money was for insurance companies or trucking firms to just pay us a retainer. There was a monthly fee for us to just be on call because trucking firms and logistic companies get in accidents fairly regularly. There were economies of scale for us to know their business, know what types of trucks they were running, know the braking systems and the ins and outs of their equipment so they didn’t need to re-train an investigator each time they had an accident.
Usually what would happen is if we had to testify in court and won the case, attorneys on both sides of the case would call us on future cases. That meant more business from both the winning and losing attorneys.
HIBMB: If you don’t mind me asking, what did you charge for an investigation?
Brandon: It would vary greatly. Most of the collisions we would just bid out. I think our billable rate to an attorney would be in the hundreds of dollars per hour. The hourly rate for me to just go investigate a cheating spouse or whatever was in the $30–40/hour range 10+ years ago.
One time we did an accident where two semi trucks collided. In order to reconstruct an accident, we had to go out to the road in Tooele, Utah at one or two in the morning so there would be no traffic. We had to get England Trucking to help us and we had to tip a semi truck on its side with these cranes and spread it across the entire freeway. We had to get the highway patrol to block off the road. Then we had to get camera crews filming from inside another truck coming along to see whether the headlights would hit the reflective surface of the bottom of this semi truck. To recreate these types of things was super expensive. It really varied greatly.
HIBMB: What costs did you have?
Brandon: It was pretty low cost. To just get started in P.I. work you don’t need a lot of equipment. I think it’s a couple hundred dollars to buy the license. To buy a bond is a couple hundred a year I think. I believe the law requires you to have something like a $100,000 or $500,000 bond which you can purchase through companies like State Farm. I think I bought mine from Nationwide Insurance. They are fairly cheap. That’s basically what you need to get started.
There were some special things I had that weren’t required. On my car I had two different sets of fog lights. That way if I was following someone and they turned I could switch which lights I was using and look like a completely different car. Again, that wasn’t really necessary.
HIBMB: What tips would you give to others wanting to build a private investigation business?
Brandon: The key to getting started in the business is to find someone to work with. The easiest way is to work for somebody else. Find one of those professional organizations and say, “I’m interested in this. Would you mind sponsoring me?”
If we could have done things a little differently…we eventually shut down the cheating spouse type of work. By the time these people would hire us to confirm a cheating spouse they already seemed to know it was happening. They just needed proof. Of these types of cases I worked on, 100% of them turned out to be cheating. We eventually got out of that business and worked in a very tight niche that had some predictable recurring revenue. This is where business was more successful rather than trying to diversify. Pick a niche and become an expert in it.
In the P.I. business your reputation is big. Your name is not something you want to treat lightly. I think maybe we could have done some more marketing or spread our name out wider across the U.S. but then again the intent wasn’t to grow it for the sake of growth or being big but instead to provide a lifestyle where there was income and cash flow. We never intended to build a company like Facebook.
Relationships are key. My dad, having been in the law enforcement industry, was what propelled the business in the beginning. Since the company was sold, the new owners have really built a brand. Before having a brand, making connections and knowing people were critical.