The B 17 Flying Fortress.

During this time, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, I understand why you might be resistant to change. I was there myself, faced with some pretty steep adversity, 20 years ago.

Consider the B-17 Flying Fortress, an American heavy bomber deployed in World War II. It flew missions in both theaters of conflict. Most of these bombers acclaim came from dangerous daylight bombing missions over Germany and occupied France, without the benefit of fighter escort.

The bomber groups were alone in the sky facing radar assisted anti-aircraft guns and defending themselves against swarms of enemy aircraft.

TV shows such as 12 O’clock High and the movie Memphis Belle added to the bomber’s legacy as a warbird that could take incredible punishment and still bring its ten-man crew back safely to England. If forced to, it could fly on only two of its four engines.

In February 2001 my figurative B-17, the high flying Independent Special Investigations, LLC was crippled by two blows. Two national private investigation companies disrupted the property and casualty insurance industry with a well-funded marketing plan. Disruption is the proper word. Here is how they did it:

Whereas I marketed to local offices of claims departments, they went to the home offices with two promises. They could take assignments anywhere in the country through an 800 number, and then the assigning claims adjuster could watch the progress of their cases in a crude dashboard by today’s standards, but it was innovative then. 800 numbers were common, but nationwide service coupled with an online dashboard was not. Think of how 1-800 FLOWERS disrupted FTD’s stranglehold on ordering flowers. Local branches of the Allstate and Harleysville insurance companies made up over 55% of my business. These competitors asked home offices for-and received-one or two-year contracts with the entire claims departments among other insurance companies. None of the local PIs that I knew were working with contracts.

Within 60 days, the time it would take to work out my present back load on their files, I would be flying a heavy bomber with only two working engines. It was a long way back to the white cliffs of Dover. What added insult to injury, those two companies try to hire my crew and me for about 50% of our billable hour rate to service our own customers, who were forced by the home office is to use the national competitors.

My customers were not happy and apologized to me, but their hands, or more appropriately their purse strings, were tied. I quickly learned the difference between the user and the ultimate buyer. The Claims VP held the purse strings and wrestled back autonomy over the SIU units. Sadly, those national competitors that were now eating my lunch charged more per hour than I did in my own backyard.

A month into this debacle, I went to a meeting in Phoenix and met with other similarly affected PIs. Their shellshocked faces told the same story. We realized we had all been watching the white puffy clouds with no contingency plans for trouble brewing just over the horizon.

Most, if not all, of our incomes, came from one source, and that was local claims departments. This was a disruption, not just a faster and better and cheaper competitor. McDonald’s was not moving next to Burger King in my town. This is like what Uber and Lyft did to the taxi business. One PI at the meeting was immune from this disruption. I met him a few times before and knew he had a successful company in the Windy City, Chicago. He was to go-to guy in Chicago for just about everything. His primary business to service the legal community. He expanded to take on the newly created SIU work, but he wasn’t entirely dependent on it. He supervised a group of highly skilled investigators invested in office staff and even a contracted Internet librarian. I considered myself an expert in insurance fraud, not a generalist. In our earlier encounters, I wished him well.

Now, he was like a guru to the half of the group that wanted to survive (the other half went to the bar to drown their sorrows). My people would not drown in the English Channel, and I was going to bring my airship home.

First, I had to get over my attitude towards other private investigators. I’ve been with an SIU unit and then launched Independent Special Investigations. That costly PI license didn’t mean much other than allowing me to do privately what I had once done as a salaried employee, but I still resisted making the mindset changes.

I also had to learn how to market. In all honesty to that point, all I had done was copy my company employee mindset for gaining and keeping internal customers. The newsletter and training worked well for adjusters, but what if the spigot got shut off? Still, I resisted looking for other types of businesses that such as lawyers or private individuals.

I was losing altitude and running out of money, and I still didn’t change my target audience, even though it was forever changed by a technology out of my reach. The nationals were investing in programmers at the earliest time on the Internet. I was having a hard time finding an administrative assistant. I could compete, because I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have an extra hundred thousand dollars lying around. I doubled down on what I did best. Marketing time ballooned. I reached out to other small insurance carriers, specialty groups and third-party administrators. I contacted self-insurers, and those lawyers handling insurance defense claims as part of a broader business mix. I was partially effective with this reach, but keep in mind I was not skilled enough to effectively gauge their attention, interest, desire or action and my sales skills. I recall driving all the way to southern Maine to talk to claims VP for small carrier, only to find out they had little or no work in southern New England and none in New York State.

My bomber was losing altitude quickly as my checkbook was getting leaner and leaner. It was hard to let go of employees trained in my work methods and company culture. I wasn’t replacing lost customers fast enough and had to lighten my load.

I waved goodbye to subcontractors almost immediately, and my part-timers went back to their day jobs. Two employees went to law school. One chose to be a stay-at-home mom. My surveillance manager went to work in a noncompeting position with his friend for a while, before changing careers entirely.

Since the remaining two employees and I had surveillance training, our plane was skimming above the trees tops on surveillance jobs and the fraud cases, but full-time paychecks were not always the norm. I didn’t cut wages, but I threw the bonus plan out the bomb-bay doors along with the annual conference training classes.

For a while a scaled-down version of ISI in the lower altitude was less stressful on the two engines. A third sputtering engine was getting stronger with cases from new clients. When I wasn’t marketing, I was back on the street doing investigations and doing surveillance on weekends. We were leveling off and even climbing, but it was still a grind.

We took on some work that wasn’t particularly lucrative, but it absorbed overhead. That summer I traveled Eastern Massachusetts one night a week to help an SIU director runoff remaining case files as he outsourced fresh cases to the national competitors. It even made his job redundant. I was working him out of a job, but it seems like we would survive going into the fall 2001.

One September morning under calm crystal blue skies, my first hire Jon and I were driving back from a weekend surveillance in Princeton, New Jersey. We were listening to Howard Stern when reports came to him that a plane had hit one of the twin towers. And then the second plane hit the other tower. Nobody knew what to think at first, but as videos and crashes made their way onto network TV, Stern reported on what he saw. We were on Route 1 headed towards New York City and, as we crested a rise, we saw smoke billowing from each of the towers toward Brooklyn. Where was Mike, my third hire? We couldn’t get a hold of him. Finally, he got to a landline, called his wife to tell her he was safe in Brooklyn, but that all the bridges were shut down. He would eventually get home that night.

We skirted the city. As we crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson north of the city, we saw both towers had collapsed. With the collapses went much of the work I built up over six months. Insurance companies put the brakes on all spending. Months went by before the business paralysis gripping the country loosened and we could resume operations.

The idea of a regional company from Bangor to Baltimore ended. When I went back on the street with only two employees, I was determined not to lay them off, but I could only keep one of them on. Luckily the second found a good job, thanks to the skills he learned from me and my glowing testimonial. The following year, the remaining employee had accumulated four years of experience between ISI and a previous surveillance company he worked for, and created his own company parachuting to safely over the English countryside. I landed alone seven years later, almost to the day after taking off. My revenues plummeted 80% from the high years. Now I was scratching out about 26 billable hours a week by myself. The funny thing was, with overhead pared down to the bone, income improved. However, this is not my idea of a fun time. I had to stop blaming smarter, and better funded competitors. I rebranded as Squire investigations, determined to make it as a solo generalist serving the legal community in southern Connecticut. I finally listened to my smart Chicago friend and took a page from his playbook!

I joined the National Association of Legal Investigators. There I found many private investigators, experts in their field who were wholly dedicated to the craft and seem to make a good living. I sat for and passed the rigorous testing to become a certified legal investigator. Later, the Association elected me their regional director.

I joined the Milford, Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, where I met a business coach. He was offering a twelve-week class. I put the expenses on an interest-free credit card and start learning about business and marketing. I took a daylong course put on by Jimmie Mesis, the former owner of PI magazine.

This is a story about almost crashing and burning. I am sharing this, so you understand I started my firm with few business and marketing skills. When faced with adversity I didn’t quit, but I didn’t also learn everything I needed right away. I stuck stubbornly, to running faster on the hamster wheel, but not getting ahead. Squire investigations became the beginning of my metamorphosis from an investigator in business, to a businessperson providing investigative services. That happened when I focused on learning how to market and sell those investigative services.

At the time of this writing there are vaccines for the coronavirus in trials, but there is no promising pharmaceutical remedy on the horizon. The number of infections has increased astronomically during the Fall. The elections are over, but the dust still has not settled. Given the current pandemic and current political situation, and no actual light at the end of the COVID tunnel, you may be losing altitude in your own businesses and wondering what you have to do to not only survive but thrive. You may have to take a hard look at your business model and see what you have to throw out in order to lighten your load. You may have to consider adopting other business models that are still flourishing during this time of minimal travel, essential work only, and lockdowns.

What things can you do from the safety of your office on your computer?

Can you track down deadbeats for landlords and for business lawyers?

Can you learn skip tracing skills.? Or at least can you all provide those services as a subcontractor to the people who perfected the art of skip tracing? Evictions are looming and mortgage defaults are going to occur even a greater rate than they had in 2008-2009. How can you work with the business lawyers this time around?

Will family lawyers have more business with divorce cases?

Will family lawyers have more business with checking on ex-spouses to see if they are placing the client’s children at risk with a parade of strangers in the ex’s domicile?

The bottom line is that you have to try doing new things and different things in order to gain altitude again. It might mean learning new skills. It might mean taking a more serious effort at marketing in a new target audience. Can you look at your website and freshen it up? Are there ways for you to make it more about your target audience’s wants and needs then about your accomplishments and career?

This is a time to think about changing in order to not only survive but thrive in this environment.

You can bitch and complain about the situation or you can stumble, fall down and get up again and keep moving in a direction to where you want to be.

I didn’t crash and burn, and you don’t have to either. My landing was ugly, but I walked away from it and began anew learning other specialties such as criminal defense and forensic genealogy as I rebuilt my business.

I was off flying again in the bright blue skies, and so can you.