However, after I sent back my answers, Sarah decided it’d be better to interview me over there about my job as a private investigator instead, so I thought I’d post the original interview on here.
In this one, the questions are by Sarah Von Bargen, and the brutally honest answers are by me.
Tell us a bit about you!
I’m Scar, I live in London and I’m a private investigator specialising in computer crime. Most of my cases involve finding missing persons or child protection investigations. I work for myself, from home, although I travel a lot as well. Hobbies-wise, I read a lot, blog prolifically, sing soprano in my local choir, write and perform punk-folk songs, and I’m currently renovating my flat.
Growing up, how did you feel about work and career? Did your parents like their jobs? What did you want to be when you grew up?
I had one parent, and she didn’t have a job. She was in a cult (long story) and it wasn’t encouraged. As a kid I thought of a career as a way out of life as I knew it: I wanted to build my own life and I already knew that work would be a fundamental part of that. However, my mother’s dedication to doing something she believed in, and her willingness to sacrifice things people traditionally think of as important for her cause, did inspire me.
As a teenager I decided to become a secondary school teacher, because the staff at the school I went to were the best people I’d ever met and are the reason I got through my teenage years. But then I discovered there were loads of other jobs available, and I sort of fell into one of them…
You spent years in the advertising world. What did you do and how did you like it?
Yeah, I got into that accidentally. When I was eighteen I found some online freelance work emailing bloggers about advertising campaigns. This was back when blogging wasn’t as huge as it is today, and blogger outreach really wasn’t a ‘thing’ yet. I started freelancing, then the company invited me to come and work for them, and I gradually got sucked in.
I spent several years there, working my way up from a freelance blogger person. I set up and remotely managed the Operations and Media teams in the new French office when they opened it, and by the time I left I was Group Head of UK & International Operations. I was managing a team of thirteen people and essentially specialising in any campaigns that weren’t in English.
How did I like it? Looking back, it’s easy to say “I hated it”, but that’s not strictly true. There were bits I loved: my team were amazing, my manager was brilliant, the pay cheques were nice! But I couldn’t shake off this underlying gut feeling that something was wrong. I’m not a fan of advertising as a discipline, and I hated that I was constantly contributing to something I disagreed with.
When did you start to consider a different career?
I’d been considering a different career since before I took the job! I’d always told myself that this was just a stop-gap thing; that I’d go back to freelancing, and do something I loved. But then I got stuck. I was married, and I was the breadwinner. I was also too exhausted all the time from commuting, managing a young team, and working in a high-pressure, cutthroat environment to see clearly enough to find a way out.
There were a few things that led to my ultimate decision to leave, but essentially it boiled down to knowing I wasn’t a good fit for the industry. The more the company grew, the more it became like the established corporations within the industry, and the more I hated myself.
What appealed to you about working as a private investigator?
There was a specific incident that made me think about becoming a PI.
Someone managed to hack into the advertising company’s network and they were trying to steal money. The tech team were on it, but they needed someone who knew the front end of the software as well as the side they were used to; and also, someone who could do the psychological element. As the longest-running non-dev employee, I was asked to help.
I spent a week sleeping at the office, working obscenely long days, chasing this guy through the network until I found where he was hiding. Several dev team sessions later, we worked out how he was doing it. I still remember the moment I found his offline identity and took the proof to the CEO, who was also working late that day. It gave me a huge sense of accomplishment.
I’d flirted with the idea of being a PI for ages – I’ve always been a huge lover of crime novels! – but I knew it’d probably be different from what I expected, and I’d never thought it a realistic career choice.
That week changed my viewpoint. I realised I was pretty good at working through details, tenaciously chasing leads, and finding out the answers. And not only could I do it, I loved it.
How did you prepare to transition from advertising to PI work?
I sent off for a training course in Private Investigation, which I studied by correspondence while I was still at my old job. I read a lot about investigative techniques, and devoured interviews with private investigators, because I wanted to know what I was letting myself in for. Much as I’d have loved to believe that it’s all just like being on Criminal Minds, I knew that probably wasn’t the case!
How did the people in your life react to your decision?
They were really supportive. I know everyone gushes “omg, I have, like, the best friends EVER”, but I really think I do. Without exception, all of my friends supported my decision and continue to be there, just being brilliant.
The only person who reacted negatively was my boss; he was desperate for me not to leave. We had a conversation on the day I handed in my notice (a Friday), in which he said he was going to talk to the board and try to make it as difficult as possible for me to quit. That sounds threatening written down, which it wasn’t at all! He just meant he wanted me to stay and would try to get other board members to persuade me. I begged him not to: I needed to go. I fretted about it over the weekend, and on Monday when I got to work he took me into a meeting room and apologised. “I know this is something you’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he said, “and I’ll support your decision.” That was lovely – and further proof that he was a great boss!
Tell us about the first few months working as a PI.
The first few months were pretty interesting. I hadn’t only quit my job: I’d also left my husband and moved into a new flat. To put it mildly, it was a time of upheaval; but I’ve always been good under pressure.
I was constantly posting ads on freelance websites, on listings sites, all over the place. I got a relatively steady trickle of cases, but none of them were big enough to pay all the bills at once. At that point I was charging by the hour, and I wasn’t charging enough. Most cases weren’t taking me very long, and I wasn’t making rent. I had just about enough savings to last the first three months or so… and then they ran out.
When did you start to realize that this wasn’t going to work?
I think the biggest wake-up call came when I found myself standing outside West Norwood station in a blizzard, busking a cappella to make rent. If you’ve ever sung publicly, you’ll know it’s nerve wracking. Add in London commuters and freezing temperatures, and you’ve got a recipe for a wake-up call!
I made rent that month, but I also lost my voice and got ill, probably from busking in the cold. I wasn’t getting enough cases, and there was no way I was going to make rent for the next few months.
You see, the problem with starting out as a private investigator is that you don’t get client referrals like you do in other businesses. If you’re a designer, or a translator, or a blogger outreach-er, then when you do a good job, your client recommends you to other potential clients. This is a great way to find new sources of income.
But when someone’s hired you to find out whether their spouse is cheating, or to discover whether a missing relative is dead or alive, it’s not the kind of thing they discuss over the water cooler. By definition, the sorts of things you work on as a PI are… well, private. And that’s a problem.
Where was I? Oh, right. Singing in the snow. Gradually, everything got stripped away. I sold all my possessions to make rent the following month. I rehomed my beloved pet snakes, because I couldn’t look after them any more. I came clean to my landlord and begged for mercy. At the lowest point, I was sitting on the floor in an empty living room, my back against the sofa (it belonged to the landlord, hence I hadn’t sold it), clutching a landline phone to my chest and trying to summon the courage to call the Samaritans. I was in a dark place; I considered suicide, I considered stripping, I considered pretty much everything.
But I soldiered on. Because what other choice was there, really?
All told, what were the effects of following your passion away from advertising to PI work?
Financially, the effects were huge. Devastating, in that first year. I went from earning a steady, good pay cheque to not earning anything. And then once I started earning again, it took a while before I was earning steadily. During my second year I was still terrified about where the next chunk of cash would come from – but by then, I knew it would come. I’d worked out how to make that happen.
Emotionally, it was a bit like… have you ever been for a long walk in the driving rain on a really cold day? You know when the rain is hitting you so hard it feels like it’s beating you up, and it hurts? Perhaps it’s hailing, even. And then you get home, and you’re utterly raggedly exhausted and freezing but full of endorphins, and you run a hot bath and make a hot chocolate, and you get in the bath and your skin goes all tingly and gradually your body goes back to being the correct temperature? And then, once you can feel your extremities again, you reach out and pick up the hot chocolate, and you take a big gulp, and lean your head back in the bubbly water, and you think, ahhh, this is it?
That’s how the past few years have felt. I’m just glad to finally be sitting in a metaphorical bubble bath!
Relationships-wise: my friends were amazing. I’m really bad at telling people when I’m not OK (something I’m working on), but sometimes they knew. At one point, one of my friends appeared at my flat with a week’s worth of food shopping and proceeded to cook for me. Another picked me up from Old Street when I was meant to be playing a gig that’d fallen through, topped up my Oyster, escorted me home and bought me a curry. Several more spent evenings over glasses of wine, listening to me rant, or just existing in the same room and being supportive. I learned who my friends were during that time, and I’m so glad I have them in my life.
These days you’re doing much better. How did you right your ship?
I got sensible!
First, I moved to a place where the rent was much lower than it is in London. I still wasn’t making much money, but the rent was now theoretically buskable. I took on a few extra bits of work: translation, writing, editing, even a bit of blogger outreach. And I worked on getting my head back together, because frankly by then it’d fallen apart.
I went to therapy. I worked through the stuff that had come up when I’d lost everything. As soon as I could afford it, I got a cat, because I knew that just having a little purring thing at the end of the bed each night would make me feel a hundred times better. I spent time sitting in my garden in the sun.
And I worked. I read articles again, and devoured business blogs, and realised that when I was thinking about leaving my old job, I shouldn’t have been reading about investigation techniques. You can do that on the job. I should have been reading about how to run a business.
I discovered that specialising was a good idea. I knew I was interested in child protection, and I’m good at finding things online. So I decided to specialise in computer crime – digital forensics, ediscovery.
I did some more training courses, joined some forums, and went to loads of conferences and networking events. Side note: when I was in my old job, I thought I hated networking. Turns out I just hated talking about advertising! Now I jump at the chance to talk to other investigators.
This has meant that it’s easier to get new clients, too, because I work with other companies. Sometimes they’ll bring me in because they need someone who speaks French, or someone who can track something down online to complement an offline investigation.
When I’d picked myself up and started making steady money again, I moved back to London, to a fixer-upper flat with a lot of potential. It’s currently going through its own upheavals, but it’ll come out the other end better too!
With what you know now, what do you think you could have done to make your PI career more successful?
I think a stronger focus on the business side and less of a focus on the investigative side when I first started out would have been useful!
Also, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling relieved when you get a new client, and forgetting that you have to keep putting yourself out there even while you’re working on your cases. That’s hard: investigation is a pretty intense job, and business admin isn’t something I particularly enjoy. Eventually I decided to set aside one day a week that’s entirely devoted to business admin – marketing, accounts, client calls, the works – so that I can focus on the job the rest of the time.
What did you learn from this that any of us could apply to our daily lives?
There’s all this fluffy wonderful stuff out there on the internet that’s like “Quit your day job! You’ll end up frolicking in a field of bunnies and rainbows and happiness all day! You’ll take up yoga and discover enlightenment and only eat raw green foods beginning with the letter A!”
And yeah, working for myself is amazing and I love it, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was 100% worth all the pain. But the pain WAS there. Not so much rainbows and yoga as hellfire and desolation, for a while.
So, when you’re “chasing your bliss”, just be prepared for the pit you might fall into along the way, and decide whether whatever you want to do is worth it. In the immortal words of my namesake: