3 Marketing Insights From My First Driving Lesson

Take a deep breath. Engage parking brake. Turn ignition on. Shift into first. Disengage parking brake. Clutch up. Gas down. Sputter sputter. Cough. Lurch. Die.

So goes the first 15 minutes of my driving lesson yesterday, the one where I find out how hard it is to work a manual transmission. Mia, my wife, sitting beside me and patiently reminding me not to grind the gears, is wondering if we’ll ever move from this spot. Possibly wondering what's more dangerous: this, or skydiving?

Then, for one magical moment, I let out the clutch and push down on the accelerator in heavenly harmony. The little blue car slides smoothly forward. I resist the urge to high-five Mia, and instead immediately go into a fantasy of actual usefulness—me buying groceries in Winterton; me driving to the bank to pay our Internet bill; me taking the kids to—huh? What?

Mia is screaming in my left ear. "Second gear! Go to second!" Flustered, I grab the shifter and pull it back, completely forgetting about the clutch. Grind, flobble, lurch, die, whiplash-inducing halt.

Take a deep breath. Engage parking brake… Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Gradually, I begin to get the hang of it. At one point, I am handling curves in fourth gear (when you don’t have to slow down, it’s easy), and I even make a right turn onto a side road, and then cherry-on-top it with a fancy reverse move known to professional drivers as the "k-turn." Oh yeah!

Yet my conversion rate from cold dead stop to rolling first gear is still only about 25% by the end of the lesson (which is defined by a total cessation of left-brain function, such as the ability to count to 5 and form recognizable words.) So I have a long way to go.

But hey, 25% ain’t awful. Nobody got killed. And the rental car is back in front of our house, none the worse for wear (at least during a walk-around inspection). Since Session #1 qualifies as a success, I get to share some marketing lessons highlighted by the experience.

1. There’s a big difference between theory and practice.

I need you to understand that I’m not a complete moron. I do get the theory of manual transmission. I ride a 24-speed bicycle. And I’ve seen The Italian Job and Scent of a Woman. So driving a stick isn’t a foreign concept.

But knowing what to do in theory doesn’t count for much in the real world. I know online marketers who are addicted to Amazon.com and email newsletters and new product launches. Whenever they’re faced with a challenge, they run to find and absorb new information. Yet their infatuation with the information ends when it’s time to implement.

No matter how promising, how lucrative, and how easy it seems at the beginning, putting the strategy into practice always involves work, time, and a reduced set of expectations. No fun at all! So it’s on to the next big idea, and the next, ad infinitum.

Mastery is achieved not by understanding theory. It’s achieved by messy movement. By manhandling that clutch until my feet sense the correct pressure and release. By being willing to be bad at something until the trials and feedback and failures start to pay off.

As an author of Google AdWords For Dummies, I deal with a lot of people who want to get involved in AdWords but still can’t figure it out in their heads. They’ve read my book, and usually several others. They’ve attended webinars and seminars and downloaded ebooks and special reports. But they still haven’t set up an account, bid on a single keyword, or written a single ad.

You can’t learn to drive a stick shift—or master a marketing medium—in your head. Mastery is a form of muscle memory. 

I’m not saying, by the way, that theory is a bad thing. If I had started to drive stick without understanding the mechanism and potential consequences of my actions, you wouldn’t be reading this now. (Yes, I know what you’re doing right now—don’t be alarmed, it’s just a parlor trick.)

And I certainly recommend that new AdWords users ground themselves in theory before giving Google their credit card.

But don’t confuse preparation for accomplishment with accomplishment itself.

2. Isolate the next step and eliminate distractions

While Mia is driving me to the lesson venue, a quiet, level side road, I am making a sequential list of the skills I need to master. 

  1. Starting the car on a flat surface. 
  2. Shifting as I speed up and slow down. 
  3. Pulling out from a traffic light. 
  4. Shifting while turning. 
  5. Starting the car on an uphill using the hand brake.

At first glance, 1 and 3 and 5 appear to be pretty much the same: go from not moving to moving. But context matters a lot. When the big white van races up behind me, oblivious to my left indicator and my auric field of panic, I discover that letting out the clutch while pressing the gas is a lot harder when I’m also concentrating on not getting rammed from behind.

I’d be a fool to try shifting into first gear with 15 cars waiting behind me (even here in Africa, where patience is the rule rather than the exception). It’s just too much to think about.

I see a lot of online marketers falter when overwhelmed. It’s understandable. There’s so much to know, and that knowledge base is a rapidly moving target. But don’t try to take it all in at once. Find the one skill that can move you forward right now. 

The trick to learning a skill is to isolate that skill until you can do it repeatedly in an environment of no distraction. Don’t practice jump shots until you can hit free throws. Don’t try to master image ads on the AdWords Display Network until you’ve figured out how text ads work. And so on.

3. Minimize risk

Two elements of this story to highlight. First, it’s a rental car. Low deductible. If I kill the transmission or sideswipe a jacaranda tree, it’s not really that big of a problem for me.

Second, my kids are not in the back seat. Not that I could have bribed them to come along with anything less than an ultra-light plane and tuition for Hogwarts. But I didn’t try. My genetic imperative is to keep them safe. 

I’ll be driving them soon enough (as soon as their rational fear of my driving is drowned out by stir craziness). But for the moment, I’m happy knowing that they aren’t in the line of fire.

Many new online advertisers get burned by unknown and unnecessary risks. Setting unlimited budgets while giving Google and Facebook your credit. Accepting the default settings which target huge swaths of humanity rather than a strategically culled few. Sending expensive traffic to untested pages and offers.

Some people think entrepreneurship is all about taking risks. In my experience, most of the time, it’s just the opposite. Entrepreneurship is about planning ahead. About limited risk and exposure and learning from every test and applying what works to bigger and bigger opportunities. As Perry Marshall and Tom Meloche memorably put it in The Ultimate Guide to Facebook Advertising, "aim tiny and miss small."

At the end of the day, marketing and operating a manual transmission are both about balancing momentum and leverage. Movement and power. Opportunity and risk.

And don’t worry, my next article is not going to be, "Marketing Lessons from Skydiving." Mia refuses to drive me there.

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[Image: Flickr user newbeatphoto]

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  • Katherine Andes

    So I hope this means you won't be hitch hiking anymore!

    I'm a tad older than you, Howie, and, in my day, we all had to learn to drive stick shift. I thought I was pretty good, but I burned through several transmissions in my Ford Pinto. I swear I was not riding the clutch!

    You are right about execution and practice. It's the same with cooking and copywriting. You get really good at the things you cook everyday and you get really good at writing when you write everyday.

    And I have an avatar, so why isn't it showing up on these comments like yours ... maybe I have to upload one to this site ... I'll go look.

  • Howie Jacobson

    Katherine, have you read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art? I just finished it, and was quite inspired. His main concept is to "go pro." 

    Just put in the time, master the craft, and the inspiration slips in through the back door. Instead of waiting for the inspiration to strike before you put pen to paper. Or knife to onion.

  • Katherine Andes

    I haven't read or even heard of the War of Art (and I'm insanely jealous of that title) ... I will put it on my "to order" list. I'm definitely putting in the time, writing everyday. And I don't have time to wait for inspiration. But now that you put it that way, I see that the inspiration has been slipping in ... and I like that image. I have sometimes felt guilty for "just writing" without inspiration ... so I really appreciate this thought.

  • Ziggy Kress

    I don't usually comment on biz articles but this touches on something I see and hear so often, the source of so much frustration: 

    Knowledge is wonderful but what ultimately counts is action. 

    Especially when we're talking about a medium so immediate and unforgiving as Adwords and internet marketing in general. Thank you for sharing your practical, applicable point of view with us.

  • Neil keleher

    I think the nice thing about driving is that it is fairly easy to figure out the learning steps. Well it is if you've got someone to tell you what they are. 
    When I learned how to ride a motorcycle they broke it down even more. They had us learn how to use brakes first. One person would push the other person on their bike and the person riding had to get use to using the breaks. I don't think we even shifted out of first gear for the first day or two. We learned how to start and stop in first gear. Then we moved on.
    Of course now in hindsight and after reading your article it is easier to see how to apply the same lessons to advertising. Have clearly defined actions or goals, things that you can recognize when you get there, and that you can recognize when you do them wrong. And make those goals low risk.

    If I were you I'd suggest finding a car park and just practice finding the biting point. Try just a little gas (control your foot) and gently and smoothly release the clutch until you find it starts to bite i.e. the car moves forwards. Then see if you can hold it there, just on the verge of the car moving forwards. Then press the clutch back down again and release the gas. Then repeat. Keep on trying to find the biting point until it becomes second nature. Then try the same thing on a hill, ideally with no traffic behind you.

    Feel your feet as they operate the pedals and use that feedback in the same way that you use google adsense feedback. 

    That part about knowing the theory but not putting it into practice is spot on.

  • Howie Jacobson

    I feel better just knowing that the thing has a name: the biting point. 

    Somehow that reassures me :)

    Finding a car park here is actually quite the challenge. Most of them are more like moonscapes than regular tarmac. But I get the picture, and look forward to finding an open spot to try it.


  • Karen Tiede

    A few other challenges you are processing:

    Driving on the other side of the road.  Am I remembering you correctly as a lefty?  You may be playing to your stronger side, but it's still different from the first million miles of driving you've done.

    "Screaming in your ear?"  Dear heart, get a different teacher.   Screaming is generally not a good way to teach.  My mother partially credits her 50+ years of marriage to finding someone other than my father to teach her to drive.

    +1 on not bringing the kids along, but I think that's as much sanity as safety.  You don't need them laughing at you, and if your teacher is already screaming, having kids in the car won't calm anything down.

    +1 on learning on a rental.  I've always suspected that 80% of wear and tear on a clutch was due to first-time manual transmission drivers.  If you catch the bug and buy a manual transmission car when you get home, understand that valet parking drivers will use your car to learn on when you go into the restaurant.

    -1 to not trying and letting Mia do all the driving.  You know how to drive.  You simply don't know how to drive a stick.  There is no value in trusting that nothing will happen, ever, that will make it important that you are able to drive that car.

  • Howie Jacobson

    Yes, I'm a lefty. I keep telling these people that they're driving on the wrong side of the road, but they are quite obstinate in their refusal to listen to reason.

    Did I say "screaming"? She wasn't screaming, just gently encouraging me not to get us both killed :)Last time I used valet parking was in an Atlantic City casino when I was 19, and the change was gone from the ashtray by the time I was done losing the rest of my change.

    I had my second lesson the other day. You still can't see any damage on the outside!

  • kishore

    The Adword Dummy, Juggler and Matrix guy does have an interesting point in that theory is different from practice, however it will be far better for everyone in his neighbourhood if Mia drives and leaves the clear-thinker to the 24-speed bicycle.

  • Howie Jacobson

    Ouch, that hurts! ;)

    Do you really want to read an article about me pushing a bicycle up the 30 degree incline to my house? Hmmm, maybe I've got something there...

  • Gemma_Laming

    Well, I learned to drive in South Africa too. Only we had a lorry, a big green one. The foot brake was big enough for two booted feet, and for good reason: there was no hydraulics to help you. Changing gear was for engineers, and in any case the gear shift thingummy was too stiff and needed both hands. What happened if I needed to go backwards? I got out and asked ...

    I passed my driver's licence in that vehicle. The policeman who came to the farm said that I should drive down the road, turn around and come back. I did. I sat in the driver's seat, and let the thing slowly rumble down the road - yes, we had a road and I think you are beginning to believe me about African roads? - I swung off the road and did a big loop through the bush and ground my way back onto the road and back up the hill.

    The policeman said "You've failed" (in Afrikaans though) I was astonished. He went on to explain about star turns and reverses, which as you can imagine left me rather upset. My father turned to him and said that I had actually done as he asked of me, to which the policeman relented and said "well, we've seen you around town, and you haven't run into anything yet, I suppose you can have it".

    Well nowadays I can reverse a lorry - with a trailer too! But these days they have hydraulics and things like that which make them easy to move in any direction. It is a pity that you can't do that with marketing ;-)

  • Howie Jacobson

    Gemz, I feel quite humbled by your experience. Luckily I have an American driver's license which the South Africa government foolishly accepts as proof that I'm not dangerous on their roads.