“I’d like to know if the person I’m dating has disturbing skeletons in their closet.”
“I’d like to know if my partner is cheating on me.”
“I’d like to know if someone in my life is hiding something.”
“I’d like to know if my new nanny or babysitter is going to keep my kids safe.”
Welcome to the homepage of Trustify, the Georgetown-based Web site that seeks to disrupt the private investigative profession the way Zillow upended real estate and Uber crashed into cabs.
“It’s a sector that’s ripe for disruption,” said Brian Willingham, 39, a longtime private investigator and adviser to Trustify. “There’s something like 50,000-plus private investigators, and the vast majority are probably sole operators. It sets eyes aglow for an entrepreneur who wants to take a chunk of a large, fragmented business that has done things a certain way for a long time.”
Local technologist Danny Boice, a former DeMatha Catholic High School baseball star, launched the company out of frustration with private investigators he hired during his divorce three years ago.
“I paid a guy a $1,500 retainer, and he blew through that in a week,” Boice said. “I felt skeezy.”
So Boice, who has made a few million dollars in start-ups, decided to launch a technology company with a Web site that connects private investigators to the masses. The company has 10 employees, is three months old and has grossed about $100,000 so far from linking 1,000 jobs to what Boice says is a stable of 2,000 licensed private investigators. Private investigative services are a $5 billion industry in the United States alone.
Trustify enables people to hire licensed private investigators for chunks of time as short as one hour at a rate of $67 an hour. Boice said the company is “essentially a lead generator, a predictable revenue stream that allows [investigators] to pay their electric bills.” Trustify pays the private investigator $30 an hour and keeps the rest.
Boice has invested $200,000 in Trustify and plans to solicit several million dollars from private investors next month. He eventually wants to sell stock to the public.
“Online dating is our bread and butter,” said Boice, who is also the company’s chief executive. “We are getting dozens and dozens of jobs through online daters.
“What’s happening is that the younger generation is relying on [apps] Tinder and Hinge to meet partners to hook up with or date. People are starting to realize, ‘I don’t know anything about them aside from what they told me.’ ”
Phil Becnel, a D.C.-based private investigator, predicted that Trustify will struggle, and he said there has been some backlash against the Web site within the profession.
“They don’t understand the industry, and for that reason, it’s not going to work,” said Becnel, 41, an experienced licensed investigator who charges $150 an hour. “Conducting investigations isn’t like driving a taxi. They are trying to democratize it, and their pitch that it is a cheaper alternative than hiring an experienced private investigator is not based on reality. It’s an industry that doesn’t lend itself to dealing with the public through an interface like an app.”
Becnel said he turns down many jobs, for a variety of reasons, which can include the potential client’s state of mind. He said, for example, he won’t accept an assignment to find an old high school boyfriend or girlfriend.
“We don’t know the terms under which those people split up,” he said. “For all we know, he or she was stalking their partner. That raises some ethical questions for us.”
Becnel said there is no clear-cut way to determine which cases to take and which ones to pass on. He said he gets at least three or four calls a week from people who may be unbalanced and “who want to hire us to do investigations when all we would be investigating is somebody’s delusional fantasies.”
“If we did that,” Becnel said, “we would be taking money from people who are mentally ill and investigating others for no good reason.”
Boice said many private investigators turn down jobs that they think would not pay enough, which he said is a tendency that Trustify is changing.
“The bottom line is that there is a consumer demand for quick cases with lower dollar amounts,” Boice said. “The more entrenched private investigators just aren’t aligned with consumer demand.”
Trustify’s homepage has a testimonial from a woman who was spooked about a guy she was dating:
“The gut feeling I had about my new boyfriend just wouldn’t go away. He didn’t seem to be telling me something, and I was right. He was married! In just a single day my investigator was able to get the details I had been trying to figure out for almost a month.”