What do network marketing, autonomous work in an increasingly science-fiction-y workforce and BBQ condiments have in common? They are clues in an Emerald City mystery that unfolded in this booming city. Cozy up and riddle me this.
Union Bank Plaza was as hard to find as the plot in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I had just moved for a job with KIND Snacks. They send me around Seattle working all sorts of events. This was one of my first. I was fresh-faced, optimistic and excitable, despite the slough of rain.
A man walked up to our KIND table. He was young-ish, had a Macklemore haircut and a fine suit. He asked me what I was doing in the city. I said I had moved for work and opportunity. Nothing remarkable. But he was interested; he asked me where I was from. Central Washington. He said he was, too. With a big smile he told me he’d like to get coffee because I had the qualities his rich mentors look for.
I was excited to meet with him. Moving to a tech-dominated city like Seattle, as not-a-techie, is an abnormal thing now. Working for tech may not always be roses (or bananas), but it is the norm. In 2017, it can feel like one works for a big corporation or chews on whatever bones get thrown their way.
Working for tech industry titans is increasingly the Seattle norm.
We met at Kaladi Brother’s Coffee, his choice, on a wet and dark afternoon. Winter rain plopped down outside. His name is “Jared,” and I write it in quotes because I think he lied. I asked him his last name. He said he texted it to me. This never happened, and even if he did, why didn’t he just tell me again when I asked?
He bought nothing, then asked me about my ambitions and how I planned to work hard for them. He asked why my partner isn’t as ambitious as me, assuming this obscure falsity, and said “negative wife, negative life.” His script felt forced, de-syncopating an otherwise natural conversation from time-to-time with these weird lines.
Even if I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, I decided to meet again. After having a copy of one of my favorite books in his briefcase, “The Go-Giver,” I saw we had shared values and goals, hopes to actualize social impact, and to use privilege to better the city, state and world. He mentioned network marketing and asset building, but vaguely, like Batman might while discussing his style choices of the 60s compared to the 80s.
The mystery man even called his suit a costume, and I wondered what other costumes he wore.
My mom came to Seattle to check in on her newly-moved kid. We went to Roti in Queen Anne, got the mango jal-frezi, and I mentioned this funny meeting. She stopped eating.
“Paolo,” she said. “I met a kid in Ellensburg who described the same guy.”
She went on to say that he says he has a mentor who is helping him work hard and leave his less-ambitious friends behind. The difference is he said he felt like he was that loser, and he likes this mentor.
“Jared’s either trying to sell you something or it’s religious,” she said. “Or he’s trying to kill you. I’ll break his neck if he hurts you. You didn’t give him your address did you!?”
I laughed, saying it’s true, it’s some weird scheme. I decided to drop it, and ate the remainder of my mom’s curry before calling it a night.
Jared asked me to see his friend speak in Issaquah. He was calling and texting me. I kept telling him I was busy with my work. So he would say “cool man, you make the date.” The ghosting was complete.
I decided I wasn’t the type for whatever shadowy cabal this was. It’s not down to either working for tech or taking a zero-focus job: there are always opportunities in the gig economy. Milennials are loving it, and I was finding I was, too.
Two weeks later, I’m working at Whole Foods in Lynnwood cutting fruit and nut bars and sampling them to hungry kids and non-JIF choosy moms. A short, well-dressed man reeking of dad walks up to me.
“Didn’t I just see you in Mill Creek?” he laughed.
“You did,” I said. “I pop around a lot.”
“I’m going crazy looking for Worcestershire sauce all over the place!”
We small talked like PNW people do. It was a sunny afternoon. He asked what I was doing in the city. I said work and opportunity. Nothing remarkable.
“Hey, I actually know a lot about network marketing and asset building. I mean, you could make seven-figures, if you knew the guys I know,” he said.
I smiled and nodded, no idea what was happening. How many Matrix-style operatives does this mystery group have in the greater Seattle area, and why were they closing in on me?
He was vague with names, promising to get coffee with me (which I’m sure he wouldn’t pay for).
The third and final random piece of the puzzle came a few days later. I was getting mutually-paid for coffee at my recent haunt, Kaladi Brothers. I said I wasn’t working for tech, and laughed as I said I was putting off my own projects to meet with these random agents of business building.
The Capitol Hill coffee shop nexus of this caper.
My friend immediately cracked the case: Amway. There are loads of stories of people running into this company, a cottage-industry titan, and there are loads of companies with this shadowy model, my friend (and John Oliver) told me.
Amway asks their employees not to use their name. They ask their employees to connect on something broad in their prospective’s past, like where they’re from. Once they grab people it can get dark.
Another schematic company is Advocare. The sliding pay scales are about the same across the board – not much for those on the bottom. Instead of tech work or self-starting, people believe in the network marketing companies' promise of financial independence.
These companies are built to empower people with legitimate aspirations, similar to why I wanted to meet Jared, to become “independent business owners.” But they sell a dream, Gatsby’s green light. It’s legally not a pyramid scheme, but it’s highway robbery.
So what lesson is there to learn from this modern-day mystery? In the future-forward economy it can seem like you'll work for tech companies who run the world or take the Amway style work. But the important lesson is how to self-start. In a city like Seattle, you can do just about anything.
The self-starter ought to try new things, like co-working spaces such as TREExOFFICE, a prototype pop-up office in London. (Matt Durham/AP)
If following passion is your goal, be creative. Make your hours, use environmental awareness to see how you can best plug into the workforce in a personalized way. Not by chasing the proverbial Worcestershire sauce of Amway.