Seasoned PI Delivers the Lowdown on the Detective Business

By Laura McCamy

4 min read

You think you have what it takes to be a private investigator, maybe start your own business. But you’re smart, too. You want to do your homework before you hang out your shingle. So you make a call. Eldon Jesse agrees to give you the straight dope on the private eye business. Maybe he’ll scare you off; maybe he’ll make you want it even more.

Jesse is an unassuming man: well dressed, but not too well, with a kind face that makes people want to spill their guts to him.

He thought a degree in economics and a straight job were his ticket to success, but he was bored stiff. Then he went to work for a detective agency in San Francisco and said to himself, “Bingo, this is it!”

He had to wait a while before he could strike out on his own. The State of California wants at least three years and 6,000 hours of experience before it will give you a license (less for lawyers and police officers).

In 1984, PI license in hand, Jesse opened his own detective agency. “I learned more about business and economics in starting my own agency than I ever learned in school or working for somebody else,” he says. “Students have no skin in the game.” He adds, “That remains somewhat the case even when working as a salaried employee. You’re playing Monopoly with someone else’s money. That safe cocoon disappears as soon as you hang an ‘open’ sign on your own business. It becomes real money and real-world.”

It was tough at first. He had to build a reputation and a client list. “It takes, literally, years,” Jesse says. “In my case, five to seven years. The nuts and bolts of surviving that are brutal.” Jesse’s niche is working for lawyers and insurance companies. “They can’t take the chance on [a newbie lousing up their job],” he says. “They’ve got to get it done right.”

To get good business, he needs good referrals. Advertising brings in clients Jesse calls “the yellow-page crazies.” He doesn’t even have a website. “That’s never been in my business plan,” he says.

“Mine is what would be called a full-service agency,” Jesse says. “Almost every case involves locating somebody.”

He tells you that a good PI has what he calls “door skills”: the ability to get a witness to open the door and let you in. “You don’t have to be a game-show host, but you can’t be afraid of interacting,” he says. “You have to be comfortable with people and a wide range of them.”

But you want to know about the car chases and shootouts. Isn’t that what a detective lives for?

Jesse laughs and tells you the life of a PI is not what you see on TV. He is more likely to spend a day slogging though databases or sitting in a car waiting for someone to come out of a building than banging heads. In more than three decades on the job, he can count on one hand the number of times someone has pulled a gun on him.

When you ask about his most exciting case, first he plays it down. Then he tells you a story that makes your hair stand on end.

It happened in 1993, the year his eldest daughter was born. He was hired to serve legal papers on a character up in the Sierras, in Gold Country. Jesse brought his wife and the baby, and they made a family outing of it.

The man lived at the dead end of a gravel road, in a trailer surrounded by a barbed wire. “This guy was a return-to-the-earth nut,” he recalls. Jesse called the guy out, dropped the legal papers at his feet, and told him, “You’ve been served.”

The guy pulled out a shotgun and started shooting. “I’m running back to the fence,” Jesse recalls. “It’s about 5- or 6-feet high.” He made it in one leap and landed in the back of his pickup truck just as his wife drove off, bullets flying over their heads.

The worst part, according to Jesse, was the four-hour drive home listening to his wife try to talk him out of the PI business. “I was toying with the idea of going back and just asking the guy, please shoot me,” he says with a wry chuckle.

You ask him what it takes to make it in the PI business. “You have to be prepared for the possibility of a 24/7 kind of [schedule],” Jesse says. “You have to welcome it. If [you] want a set, foreseeable, and predictable job, this is not it.”

On the plus side, Jesse says, “I grew up with my kids.” His flexible schedule allowed him to pick them up from school and cheer for them at their sporting events.

Then there’s the satisfaction when you bust a case wide open. “That ‘Aha!’ moment never goes away,” he says. “When you make sense out of something … it’s a rush.

“I like being identified as a PI,” Jesse says. “There aren’t a lot of us.”

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Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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