Pain Is the Greatest Teacher

Gwen Shields


I was talking with my 15-year-old son the other day. Or rather, I was talking AT my 15-year-old son the other day…

Evidently, he’d come to the realization that he’d learned everything mom and dad had to teach him. And while we were still free to offer him suggestions, it wasn’t really necessary any more. So if we could just give him his allowance, all would be well.

Stan Zukowski and son (who asked not to be named for fear of ruining his reputation) on their motorcycle trip to Nova Scotia, 2010

Whew! One less thing for me to worry about.

But the conversation did get me thinking about the process of learning. In my experience, the real life lessons I’ve learned—the ones that had any real staying power—were the ones that hurt the most.

Put another way, the more pain, the more gain.

I know, I know, nothing revolutionary here. There are thousands of similar sentiments from old dead folks who were much wiser than I’ll ever be, such as:

  • We learn more by looking for the answer to a question—and not finding it—than we do from learning the answer itself. (Lloyd Alexander)
  • Experience: That most brutal of teachers. But you learn. My god, do you learn. (C.S. Lewis)
  • If you hold a cat by the tail, you learn things you cannot learn any other way. (Mark Twain)

And that Greek dude Aristotle summed it up perfectly:

  • Learning is not child’s play. We cannot learn without pain.

We learned there’s a big gap between knowing there’s a better way and knowing what that better way actually is.

And so to my point.

Andrew and I started Altitude Marketing in 2004 for one reason: Too many times throughout our corporate careers, we had been on the paying end of bad advice, shoddy execution and exorbitant consulting fees from different marketing companies. We knew there had to be a better way—a more honorable, more effective way—to help other businesses with their critical marketing needs. So we set out to start our own marketing agency.

As it turns out, we learned there’s a big gap between knowing there’s a better way—and knowing what that better way actually is.

Put succinctly, Andrew and I made a lot of mistakes in those early years. Mistakes that were very painful, both to our egos and to our wallets. But we learned, too. Boy, oh, boy, did we learn. With each new client, each new project, we learned how to provide better service, better advice, better deliverables.

Oh, we were cocky back in the day, and still suffer from the occasional bout of arrogance. But we still  feel the same frustration and outrage that spurred us to start our own company—only now we feel it on behalf of small business owners like ourselves.

I can’t tell you how many of our clients have turned to us for help after being burned by some web developer, taken to the cleaners by a so-called “SEO expert,” or sold a half-assed logo and brochure by some fly-by-night design shop. (Before I get flamed, I know there are plenty of talented, hard-working, respectable marketing-related companies out there besides Altitude. But they’re not the ones I’m talking about.)

We’ve become a successful company—growing to six full-time employees and three part-time employees, while tripling revenue every year during one of the worst recessions in recent history—by treating our clients the way we would want to be treated.

Andrew and I made a lot of mistakes in those early years. Mistakes that were very painful, both to our egos and to our wallets. But we learned, too. Boy, oh, boy, did we learn.

We’re also devoted believers in the Open Source movement. And not just for software. We believe knowledge should be shared, not stuck in a black box.

The Birth of Altitude Academy

Many of our clients are entrepreneurs—small companies, startups, people with fantastic intellectual property who need someone they can trust to help them market and grow their business. And because we consider ourselves something of a startup, too, we decided to pay it forward by launching what we’re calling “Altitude Academy.”

The idea behind Altitude Academy is to provide small business owners with the knowledge and understanding to become better consumers of marketing and advertising related services. That way, when they do need to outsource some service or another, they’re in a better position to make smart, informed decisions.

We brainstormed some ideas for classes:

  • Hiring (and managing) a web developer, photographer or print designer
  • Writing the ideal “elevator speech”
  • Understanding Google AdWords & Pay-Per-Click
  • Easy, low-cost ways to use social media for marketing
  • Creating a user-friendly customer survey
  • The do’s and don’ts of email marketing
  • Strategic planning: Why you can’t afford not to
  • How to write great web copy that Google will love
  • Et cetera and so forth

And so Altitude’s “Lunch & Learn Small Business Market Series” was born.

Our first class will be on the topic of “Understanding Web Analytics.” Search engine optimization, or SEO, is a very important concept for small businesses to understand. Unfortunately, SEO is also the “wild west,” with a whole new breed of snake-oil salesman out there looking to take your money. (Check out our related article, which appeared in the East Penn Business Journal a couple of weeks ago.)

Our goal in this class is to help small business owners understand the principles behind web analytics. And understanding web analytics is key to understanding SEO. Attendees will learn what they can (and should) be doing themselves to improve their search engine rankings. And most of all, they’ll be savvier consumers if and when they need to hire outside assistance.

In the meantime, I’m going to get back to work, making the occasional painful mistake. For me, it’s the only way to learn.

Gwen Shields

As Altitude’s COO, Gwen Shields oversees client-facing systems and processes to improve service and retention, ensuring production operations run smoothly and effectively. Her exceptional problem-solving skills and technical knowledge allow Gwen to understand and guide Altitude’s core base of technology-focused clients.
Gwen earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and worked in information systems and tech sales before becoming a part of Team Altitude in 2008.