As a private investigator, you'll delve into the secrets of people's lives and solve mysteries, but you'll spend far more time on the phone and at your computer than any fictional private eye ever does, and odds are you'll never be involved in high-speed chases or shootouts with bad guys. Instead, you'll perform background checks on prospective employees, tenants, business partners and marriage mates; do skip traces (missing-persons searches) on parents who owe child support or people who've left town owing money, investigate insurance claims, and nose out evidence for lawsuits. You can specialize in any of these activities, or in finding lost loves, children abducted by noncustodial parents, or corporate fraud. If you're a computer whiz, you can specialize in hacker crimes and advise companies in online security. The advantages to this business are that it's creative, challenging, glamorous if not conventionally exciting, and reuniting people with loved ones or finding criminals who can be brought to justice can be very rewarding. You'll need dogged self-motivation, and you'll require high levels of creativity and intuition to guide you to new and innovative ways of obtaining information when normal channels fail. You should also have A-plus people skills, the ability to sift truth from prevarication, and a healthy dose of self-confidence--you'll deal with all sorts of characters, and not all of them will want to talk to you or tell you the real story.
Your clients can be attorneys who handle criminal or civil cases, insurance companies, apartment complexes, corporations and private parties with a variety of mysteries to solve. Solicit all of these entities, except individuals, by sending your sales letter and brochure in a direct-mail campaign, then following up with phone calls. The best way to reach individuals is through an ad in the Yellow Pages. You can also develop clients by networking among professional and civic groups and giving talks or seminars.
In most states, you'll need a private investigator's license, which requires you to have experience in a similar field--law enforcement in the public or military sector, collections, claims adjusting, sometimes investigative journalism, or of course a background in a private investigative agency. To set up your office and get going, you'll need a computer with a laser or inkjet printer, the usual office software, internet access, and a fax machine. You should also have a camera or a video camera, a tape recorder, and a pocket organizer or notebook for keeping track of expenses, which you'll bill to your clients.