From the September 2000 issue of Startups

A major concern for every business is the potential for loss--loss of money, loss of equipment, loss of valuable assets. The problem is so prevalent that it's an anticipated aspect of any industry; in fact, more than $400 billion is lost annually to both internal theft and external crime. Well, John Dolezal and Martin Mittelstadt, both 31, and Brian Dixon, 21, have proven you don't have to take that loss sitting down. Their Casper, Wyoming-based business, Assets Protection & Investigation Inc., was founded to help companies improve their bottom lines by increasing profits and decreasing losses due to stock shortages and employee dishonesty.

The seeds for the company were planted after Mittelstadt recruited Dolezal to work in the loss prevention department of the local Target. The two soon decided to take their knowledge and help out small businesses by founding Shurlock Investigations & Security Services in 1993. After some restructuring and the addition of partner Dixon, they renamed the company Assets Protection & Investigation in 1999.

Over the years, the partners developed several programs to prevent losses to businesses, including physical security assessment, risk analysis, background screenings, employee training and orientation, dishonest employee investigations, regular and covert camera systems installation, and loss recovery and interview interrogations. They also conduct private investigations, such as locating missing persons.

Even though they estimate they'll reach $300,000 in sales this year, the partners have held on to their day jobs-Mittlestadt as a part-time firefighter, Dolezal as a loss prevention manager at Wal-Mart, and Dixon as a back room manager for Target. Working out of both Dolezal's and Mittelstadt's homes in Casper, Wyoming, the partners primarily market to Wyoming clients, but their rapid growth and reputation have garnered them large contracts with several national companies.

HomeOfficeMag.com: Did you experience any obstacles when you were starting up?

John Dolezal: The biggest obstacle we faced was figuring out the legalities, insurance and licensing in Wyoming. It was pretty difficult to determine exactly what you have to have. We spent hours and hours on the phone.

Martin Mittelstadt: I think setting up a business is mind-boggling for a beginner. Like John said, there was so much stuff [to consider]. It took months trying to figure out that information. There's so much to learn, like how to sell to the client, customer service, bookkeeping and accounting, the taxes involved.

Dolezal: What made this so difficult is there are very few companies like ours [both nationwide] and in Wyoming. And to the best of our knowledge, we are still one of the only companies that do what we do.

Mittelstadt: There are only a few national security companies; Pinkerton and Wackenhut are the largest. John and I attended a seminar that helped us learn where to market our services based on what the national companies do. When we started, we called a few places that were similar, such as guard services, to find out their pricing and what licensing was required, and they were all pretty helpful.

HomeOfficeMag.com: What were your start-up costs?

Mittelstadt: We started out with about $5,000 in savings between the two of us. We requested 50 percent down on our first contract, which helped buy some of the equipment. We needed camera equipment, VCRs, small covert cameras and tools for installing those cameras and monitors. As our business progressed, we bought computers.

HomeOfficeMag.com: How do you market your services?

Dolezal: We've done all kinds of different things. We've done radio promotions. We do direct mail and have done a substantial amount of advertising through [our local] chamber of commerce newsletter, since we're members. In a couple of days, I'll be the guest speaker on background checks for pre-employment screenings [at a Society for Human Resource Managment conference.] It's a lot of word-of-mouth, and being involved with different organizations. Direct mail has been most successful for us and gets us our biggest contracts. Radio and Yellow Pages advertising gets us the smaller things, like finding a lost loved one. The only thing we've stayed away from is newspaper and TV advertising because it's overpriced.

HomeOfficeMag.com: What are your future plans for your company?

Dolezal: Right now it's growing so fast, it's almost hard for us to keep up. During the past few months, we've been getting two and three new customers and contracts each day. We have a lot of growth planned for the next six months to a year. And we plan on staying homebased as long as we possibly can. There will absolutely come a time when this becomes the main job for all three of us.

HomeOfficeMag.com: What's one thing that makes you glad you started your own business?

Mittelstadt: I think the main benefits are being able to set your own hours, getting out and meeting clients, and offering a service that's needed. [Another benefit] is knowing we can help people by decreasing their losses.

Dolezal: The personal freedom is great, [as is] meeting [new] people. We've met all kinds of people with different problems and issues. I do a lot of the locating-finding people who either don't want to be found or have lost contact. There was a lady who hired me find her father [whom she'd lost contact with for] 17 years. I found him in about 15 minutes, and they were reunited. We've brought runaways back home to their parents. That's a very rewarding aspect of our business. It's the special talents the three of us possess that make these results happen.