A few months back I traveled to San Diego for my first professional SEO Conference. It turned out to be an adventure that I’ll never forget.
I was sent there to “figure out how to make us money” – according to my boss, at least. Personally, I had hoped to get a glimpse at the future of the profession and the trends for 2010. I also secretly desired a couple minutes of face time with the industries so-called “thought leaders”, whom I could speak to about some of my personal theories.
I figured the commute would be hellish, though most of Orange and San Diego counties on a weekday morning, but there was hardly anyone else on the road! I arrived far ahead of schedule, but ended up turning the wrong way at the last direction on my sheet. Instead of entering the resort that would play host to OMS 10, I made a left into the parking lot overlooking Mission Bay. Google Maps had sent me there, but looking back on it now I’m not so sure that Fate itself didn’t play some small role too.
I parked my car as close to the waters edge as I could get, then began to change into my “conference clothes”. Shiny shoes, a dress shirt, and slacks- much more “professional” than my daily work attire of t-shirt and jeans. Though my car’s battery had been having problems in recent weeks, I figured the 80 mile drive would be enough to keep a full charge so I didn’t even bother turning off the radio while I enjoyed the scenery.
But when I got back into the car and went to engage the ignition, I was met with a mechanical whizzing sound, an electric whine, and the tap-tap-tapping of a dead battery. My world collapsed. The dashboard gauges fluttered, and with them went my heart.
“Shit,” I thought as beads of perspiration began to gather on my brow, “of all the times!”
I’d been driving on this dying 7 year-old battery for months, refusing to get a new one until it truly gave out. I’d traversed well over 80,000 miles on that battery alone, hardly making it out of some rough patches, but always on my own time. What a way it was to start my first official conference.
I flagged down a City Parks worker in a gigantic Ford truck and asked him for a jump. He said he wasn’t allowed to use the city car it, but pointed toward a bright red pickup about two hundred yards down the lot from me and said that they could probably help. I followed his glance and noticed two derelicts, obviously vagabonds of some sort, milling around, apparently just killing time. I immediately decided to call AAA, but it was already too late.
He had already started off toward them and was soon deep in conversation. I watched the drifters toss some dirty bags into the truck before hopping into the cab and firing up its engine. I swallowed hard as they approached- I’ve had some intense run-ins with their type in the past.
“You need some help?” the driver asked out his window as I waved to them, forcing a smile.
“I’d really appreciate it, if you’ve got the time.” It was obvious that they did, but I’m always awkward about asking for help.
As I popped the hood I couldn’t help but feel ashamed. There I was in my spit-shined shoes, my french-cuffed collared shirt, and pin-stripe slacks having to waste these guys time who obviously could have spent it better on other things- like showers, laundry, or looking for jobs. I felt like “The Man” himself, asking for assistance from people who had absolutely nothing to give.
But they were nice, and seemed excited to be able to lend a hand, so I grabbed my jumper cables from the trunk and watched them go to work. They said that they knew how to do it just right, but as the first connector was placed on my battery it exploded into a shower of red plastic rain.
Enter paranoia: “Did he do that on purpose?! No, no wait- it must have been an accident.”
The one who’d been watching let me know that they had their own set of cables, much more reliable that the “Chinese pieces of shit” that I had given them. He nodded to the other guy, who disappeared into the truck. As the new set appeared and the two of them got to work fixing up the connections, a third man I hadn’t seen before stumbled out of the truck.
He looked filthy and disoriented, the commotion must have woken him up. He sidled slowly over toward me and just sort of stood there for a second with a vacant look on his face and that familiar thousand-yard stare I’d come to know from my days of volunteering at the VA Hospital’s Schizophrenia Research Lab. He was far dirtier than the other two, with greasy hair that hadn’t been washed in months, filthy teeth, and smudges of grease, or perhaps snot on his ragged denim shirt.
But he reached out his hand for a shake, and introduced himself with gusto: “Nice to meet ya, I’m Totally Tal!” His voice was gruff, yet melodious, and I couldn’t help but like him. I took his outstretched hand, smiled, and let him know how much I appreciated their help. Mid-handshake I noticed the piss stains on his jeans. They’d clearly been soiled with regularity, and it was obvious to me that no Tal was in no way interested of disguising that fact.
Tal started mumbling some incomprehensible things as he searched for a cigarette, checking each of the pockets of his shirt, and all of those in his jeans. Finally locating his pack, he pulled forth a final cigarette as if it were the Holy Grail itself, clearly ecstatic that he’d located that last smoke. As he lit up, the other two announced that everything was ready, that I should give it a shot.
But it took a few tries to get it right.
After the first failed attempts they started arguing about how long I’d have to wait before trying the key again. The first two extolled patience, while Tal pushed for an immediate result. The Ring-Leader called him off with a loud and seemingly uncharacteristic “Shut the fuck up Tal!”
Two minutes later my motor kicked into gear just as Tal began to explain that they were “The Three Musketeers”. He made it clear that he considered it his duty to help out travelers in need, before beginning his lament: “Man- We are sooo broke! We are so broke man. We don’t have annnnnnny money.”
I was relieved, since I’d wanted to offer them cash for their assistance, and saw this as a great opening.
“Could I help you guys out? Would $20 bucks help any?”
All three sets of eyes lit up instantly. “Twenty dollars?! Hell yeah that’d help us out!” Tal seemed ecstatic, but it was also evident that I’d hurt the Ring-Leader’s pride.
“We don’t charge for help Tal…” he said dryly, while packing up the cables. I insisted, telling them they’d literally saved my day, and helped me out far more than I thought $20 would do for them.
He seemed to vacillate, then said that I should take their cables in case my battery died again before I could get it replaced. I tried to turn him down, but gave up when it became obvious that I was fighting a losing battle since pride was at stake.
During the good-bye handshake with the Ring-Leader I again thanked him for their help, to which he responded: “No problem, I mean we couldn’t help it. You’re just so damn cute.”
I flashed a smile, finished the hand-shake, and let them know that I had to get going if I was going to make registration on time. I hopped into the car, shut the door, and breathed a sigh of relief.
After registering with the pretty hostesses and receiving my badge, I went straight to the restroom to wash my hands, where I was floored by the ostentatiousness of my surroundings. I had just been speaking to three men who had nothing more than they could fit in a single pickup, and I now found myself surrounded by people in suits with slicked back hair, fancy laptops, and a consuming sense of self-importance (Marketers are nearly all this way).
I was in awe, but also a little bit disgusted, by the chandeliers, mosaic floors, incredible floral arrangements, and a marina full of sailboats and yachts. The juxtaposition was so extreme that I could hardly focus on the task at hand- the task that I hate above all other tasks- networking! But I was there to do a job, and I did it to the best of my ability.
As the conference progressed and I met an assortment of “Professional Marketers”, “SEO Consultants”, and “Conversion Optimization Specialists”, it became apparent to me that The Three Musketeers were both more real, and certainly far more interesting than the hundreds of highly motivated, talented, and entirely ordinary people attending the Conference. I’d have rather spent the day with the dudes in their truck (had they not hit on me so blatantly), learning about their lifestyle, their skill-sets, and their life outlooks, than trying to figure out how to break Google’s algorithm.
But just before the final presentation my attendance was entirely vindicated when I came in touch with a second set of three companions who were just as fascinating as that earlier group: the CEOs of three of the largest Search Engine Optimization companies in the world. They were the rock-stars of the conference, commanding everyone’s attention. These three are A-list celebrities of the Search Marketing world, and I’ll be leaving out their names since I doubt they’d want to be written about here.
They stood near the registration table, set apart from the rest of the pack, spending the first half of our final twenty minute break talking amongst themselves while the rest of the conference attendees milled around, watching them out of the corner of their eyes. I too felt some apprehensive about approaching them, but I also realized that this was my best chance to prove that Conference attendance fees are worth it, so I put aside my insecurities and walked up to their closed circle, waiting for an in.
Ten minutes later I walked away with answers to my most important questions, with the answers to everything that I had wanted to find out. My idea about the future of the industry had been entirely off-base, shattered with a single sentence, and shot down by the industry’s best and brightest. But they had done so with a smile, and with class, and I was happy to have finally an answer that I could trust.
This was my Mission Accomplished moment.
But more importantly- I was struck by the similarities between those two sets of Three, between the Morning and Afternoon Musketeers
The earlier group were the downtrodden, the impoverished, the ‘failures’ or ‘dregs’ of society – those who had followed Leary’s advice, and paid the consequences for doing so.
The second group were the success stories, the entrepreneurs, the ‘captain’s of industry’ or ‘champions of capitalism’, who had followed dreams of a different nature, and been rewarded with the financial fruits of their intellectual labors.
Yet each set were essentially the same: good people willing to help those in need and happy to be of service to their fellow-men. I learned a much more valuable lesson that day than I had expected to receive.