In the hard-boiled version of private investigation, characters like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe got information the old-fashioned way: by schmoozing leggy blonde secretaries and questioning thugs who grunted, "Keep your nose out of it, shamus." Today's private eyes have evolved beyond using the rumor mill as an intelligence source and getting important leads from matchbook covers. They're taking full advantage of the information age to help businesses hire wisely, choose reliable clients and monitor employees who may have poor definitions of "profit sharing" and "flex time." Although information-gathering isn't just for professionals, there are tricks to the trade that make it easier to think like a P.I. and, more importantly, act like one.
"The first thing to keep in mind is that the next person who comes in your door could be the reason for your [business'] success or failure," says Ed Pankau, a Houston private investigator and author of Check It Out! Everyone's Guide to Investigation (Contemporary Books, $19.95, 800-323-4900). Whether that person looks like a golden job candidate, a stellar client or a generous new investor, Pankau says your standard practice should be to follow the X-Files mantra, "Trust no one."
"There are several things every [entrepreneur] should check," says Pankau. "The first is the person's criminal and civil record. Call the county court clerk where they live and ask, Do they have a criminal history? Do they have any civil litigation, either as a defendant or plaintiff? Look at their resume and references to see where they've lived before, and call the county court clerk there. You can find out whether they make a [habit] of suing employers or if they've ever been charged with fraud."
Next, enter cyberspace for additional facts. Many newspapers have extensive archives online with powerful search engines just waiting for your query. Pankau says this technique works especially well when investigating potential clients or investors, since news about local companies and their key people frequently lands on the business page.
Credit checks are advised if a potential employee will handle funds. Although there are strict rules about running such reports, it's legally permissible if you're considering making a job offer. Order reports through the country's major credit bureaus, Experian (formerly TRW), Equifax Inc. and Trans Union.
To cut down on the time involved in all these searches, however, you can access all-encompassing databases by paying an investigative service to do the looking for you. Databases like Autotrack are restricted to investigators and law enforcement personnel but are easily plumbed by simply ordering a report from a local P.I. agency, or an online service like Automatic Check or Background Information Searches.
Always arm yourself with protection before starting your investigation. "If you don't disclose that you're going to run a series of checks, you're open to liability," says Janet Mercier, corporate counsel at American Investigative Services in Boston. Mercier suggests buying standard release forms, sold at most office supply stores: "They're usually vague enough to cover most [background] checks, and people seldom balk at signing them."
Follow The Leads
Automatic Check (http://www.auto-checkusa.com): This Web site offers standard database information like credit reports and criminal histories, with a fun twist--all reports are in narrative format, just like a true-crime story.
Background Information Searches (http://www.biscx.com): Order searches on assets, worker's comp claims and more.
Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org): Find out at this Web site if the new company that wants to do business with you has had any nasty complaints filed about it, or file one yourself if you've been burned. (We're all in this together, right?)
Dun & Bradstreet (http://www.aol.telebase.com/index.htm): Find credit reports and company profiles, plus useful stuff like trademark, copyright and patent information.
The P.I. Mall (http://pimall.com): Think online shopping at its informative best. Search the State Agency Database or just look for that prom date you can't forget.
The big three of the credit report world:
- Experian (http://www.experian.com)
- Equifax Inc. (http://www.equifax.com)
- Trans Union (http://www.tuc.com)
By Carla Goodman
Want to get a handle on the best business books to read and discuss what you've read with other entrepreneurs? Maybe it's time you started a business reading group.
As one of the hottest trends going, business reading groups "are an invaluable opportunity for entrepreneurs to talk to their peers, network and bounce ideas around," says Patricia Anderson, director of sales and marketing for Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. in San Francisco.
Berrett-Koehler Publishers is one of two dozen publishing companies behind the Consortium for Business Literacy, an informal organization that encourages the formation of business reading groups. Here are the Consortium's guidelines for starting your own reading group:
Where: Your local bookstore might offer a meeting room you can use, or look for a meeting space at your library, community center, church or synagogue. Another option that might be easier: Rotate meetings among the members' homes or businesses.
When: Ideally, your group should meet once a month at the same day and time--say, the first Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. Depending on the number of members present and how lively the discussions become, expect meetings to last 60 to 90 minutes.
How: You'll need a facilitator--someone to open and close your meeting, encourage discussion among members, keep the discussion on track so the meeting ends on time, and review the book of the month carefully for specific discussion topics. The facilitator might be the same person each time, or you can rotate the role among members.
Who: Guest authors are one way to spice up a reading group. At Barnes & Noble's Walnut Creek, California, location, which sponsors a monthly business reading group, members frequently invite authors to discuss their works. A recent guest was Robert Mondavi, president of Mondavi Vineyards in Napa, California, and author of Harvest of Joy: My Passion For Excellence: How the Good Life Became a Great Business (Harcourt Brace, $27, 800-237-2665).
How much: Costs should include the price of the book, any printing or mailing charges for meeting notices, and refreshments. To keep costs low, encourage a local bookstore to offer a discount on your group's monthly selection. Create an e-mail list or phone tree so members can stay in touch without printing and mailing anything.
Serve simple refreshments like coffee, soft drinks and cookies. If you need more substantial fare, chip in for pizza or have a potluck dinner to spread the costs and help busy members who can't find the time to eat before the meeting.
Learn more: For guidelines on starting and running your own reading group, plus suggested readings, study guides and activities to ensure lively, productive discussions, check out these Web sites: http://www.bkpub.comor http://www.ReadersNdex.com/b2000
Business writer David Stauffer receives hundreds of business books free each year as owner of Stauffer Bury Inc., a Red Lodge, Montana, business writing firm that compiles management information and produces business publications for corporate clients.
With so many tomes and so little time to read them, Stauffer has learned to sift the good from the bad at a glance. Here, he offers his tips for sizing up business books in a hurry:
- Read reviews online. Business magazines and newspapers regularly run reviews of the latest business books. Find them online at the publications' Web sites.
- Check the book's index for a person or topic with which you're familiar. Flip to those pages to see if the author says anything new on the subject. If it's just the same stuff, skip the book.
- Count the authors. Too many spoil a book. "Chances are the author with the least experience did all the writing," says Stauffer.
- Avoid "cure-all" books. A book that promises solutions to all your business problems will likely do no more than deplete your cash flow.
Ed Pankau, c/o Pankau Consulting, (713) 224-3777, http://www.pankau.com
Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., fax: (415) 362-2512, firstname.lastname@example.org
David Stauffer, c/o Stauffer Bury Inc., email@example.com
Elizabeth Millard (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer who frequently uses her private investigative skills while researching articles.
Carla Goodman (email@example.com) writes about small-business issues for Entrepreneur and other national business magazines.