3. Lemons to make lemonade
Not Long after moving to Adelaide our third child, Timothy was born at Queen Victoria Hospital. It since has become an apartment block. Isobel assisted with the driving school as much as possible, but had her hands full with the three children.
I had already produced a number of visual aids to local driving schools and received mail orders from around Australia. My first business name was DRIVA Australia. The letters DR (Driving) I (Instructor) V (Visual) A (Aid) formed into a name that I used as email address in years to come. I would see significance in those five letters.
Over the years I sold around 400 visual aid kits. I did not make much money. Ideas and enthusiasm were plentiful, while resources of cash and time were very limited. It gave me satisfaction to know my ideas were received and did some good somewhere. Making money was never my strong point.
I remember how stressed I was trying to telephone interstate clients or local suppliers in between driving lessons from public phone boxes. Evenings were filled with more phone calls for the MCA, church meetings and producing these visual aid kits. Isobel helped as much as she could, but felt restrained in sharing her husband’s grand ideas.
Not that I wanted to make millions. With the small market of driving instructors in Australia I realized, and Isobel kept reminding me, that I ought to concentrate on my job and family. Soon after settling into the new work, I brought the idea of the visual aid forward at a meeting of management and instructors. I was hoping for some help from my new employer.
One day I was called into the office by the Executive in charge of the driving school. “This is it” I thought, “with the backing of such a huge organization things will move ahead”. But instead, having heard about my activities, he was checking if there was any conflict of interest between selling my DRIVA and my job.
To not get any support for my creativity was disappointing. Eventually after a perceived interest by other instructors, the MCA purchased 2 kits for our fleet of instructors (about 15 at the time). I brought forward many ideas at our six monthly meetings and later was aptly named the ideas man.
Progress was slow at the MCA. At one meeting an idea was brought forward. Six months later it was still being considered. Another six months later, one was waiting for advice from an outside source. Finally it was totally forgotten, perhaps because it was not regarded as important or it was too late to be included in the current year’s budget.
I suggested various forms to streamline paperwork with various degrees of acceptance. My biggest follow-on project, resulting from the visual aid, was a road safety game. I called it Formula 500. It was to teach road rules by playing a board game. I spent hours on it, producing one mock up after another, each one better than the other, so I thought.
I believed in the idea so much, that one year I took the latest proto-type on holidays to Sydney and showed it to a staff member at the NRMA in Clarence Street. I was very naïve and thought that this large Motoring Club would get behind my product in some way. I wasn’t after an endorsement, just interest and any kind of support. After all my ultimate aim was road safety for our young people learning to drive and beyond the driving test.
To sell my ideas and myself, to others has been my greatest weakness. The NRMA, I was told politely, does not endorse products. Over the following months I would contact many companies and organizations with little response.
When a new Marketing Director took over in the late 80’s I had another try in bringing the latest edition, a simplified version, to his attention. He did go as far as getting an outside opinion and a quote. The report, of which I still have a copy, showed that with proper marketing about 10 000 units could be sold. The report reached the second in charge of the organization, but was rejected at that level.
The MCA driving school had a very good name in the community. Every driving school is only as good as the individual instructor. Some of us were better than others. Unless you spent a day with an instructor in the car you don’t really know how effective they operate. We were the most expensive driving school in Adelaide. The perception was that we were obviously the best, which kept us busy.
Records were kept by office staff as to each driving instructor's performance. My best result was in the six months from 1/4/89 to 30/9/89. I recorded the most students presented for a driving test (93 - average was 46), had the highest pass rate (76.3 – average was 63.2) and taught in the least number of lessons required to achieve it (10.5 – average 15.1). I was teaching in an automatic vehicle at the time. Because the main boss was on holidays I never received any recognition of any kind for this extraordinary result. I believed that using my unique recording sheet and the visual aid helped achieve the result.
But from a driving school employer’s point of view such a good result may not be good for business. If you can keep a client for 6 months, taking two lessons a week to obtain a licence you earn more money than from a student that learns in three months having only one lesson a week. It is the same principle as the office worker who stays back until 7 pm every night. Is he/she a better worker or just takes a bit longer to do the job? In the driving instructor game it is very easy to be mediocre and give the impression that you are thorough. I am too honest to stuff people around.
The following advice I was given by a driving instructor; it speaks first hand of the way dishonesty could be applied: “If you book someone for a test, don’t take the earliest appointment. Book one the week after, then you have them for another three lessons the week before”. Another one taught me how to cheat the tax department. I never forget it and am amazed how people can go to bed at night and sleep under such self- deception.
The MCA management expected us to work as much overtime as the business (clients) demanded. Fifty to fifty five lessons a week was not unusual. The basic pay was very low so I had to work much overtime to pay bills, feed the family and find spare cash for my inventions. I was sure one day my dream of success and recognition would come true. Ideas kept coming. When a new idea took hold of me it was very hard to dismiss. It hurt physically to be constantly thwarted. Inside I was burning with a passion to make roads safer and/or to make my job and that of other instructors easier.
Without yet realizing it I was moving in the right direction. Yes, I was stressed in those days. It would have been easy to give up. But giving up or even staying down for long, was not my way. I was on a rocky road that would lead to unimaginable heights. But first there were many valleys and rivers to cross.
1. More in number 2. A sound mind 3. Now I'm found 4. Candle and the Wind
5. Realm of Nature 6. All in his Hand 7. The Wonder of it All 8. To Think God loves