Dance Dance Revolution and One Big Reason Why Businesses Prosper Online

Image of Vinyl Record on Player

The last time I was in Texas for the South by Southwest festival, one of the highlights of my trip was watching Pace Smith play a video game called Dance Dance Revolution.

She used to play competitively, so her gameplay is serious business. Her feet moved like two blurs. Jump. Jump. Twist. It was an impressive thing to watch.

It looked so cool, in fact, that I decided I wanted to learn to play DDR too. So I bought a copy for my Wii, put the plastic dance pad on my floor, and quickly realized how incompetent I was.

I watched the arrows scroll by and jabbed clumsily at the pad, but I was too slow. More arrows came. I missed those, then I missed the arrows that followed while I was trying to hit the arrows that had already passed.

If Dance Dance Revolution dancing were a business, Pace would be the one with all the clients and income she could stand. I, on the other hand, would be the crappy little online startup that couldn’t get any traffic, clients, or revenue. I was pulling out my hair in frustration, screaming, “Why isn’t this working?”

It seemed that Pace had some kind of inborn skill that I simply didn’t have. She knew something I didn’t know. Does any of this sound familiar?

If so, I’ll tell you why.

Doing business online is not all that different from playing Dance Dance Revolution

You know those overnight success stories you’ve heard about?
It’s not the whole story. Dig deeper and you’ll usually find people
who have busted their asses for years to get into a position
where things could take off.
~ Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, 37 Signals

There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
~ Johann Sebastian Bach

I know the notion that DDR and business aren’t dissimilar sounds absurd, but think about it for a second.

Pace wasn’t born being good at DDR. She was once where I was, as frustrated as I was, as disbelieving as I was that she could ever hit all of those fast-moving arrows.

And in the same way, if your business isn’t where you want it to be, you probably look up to big, successful sites and businesses online and think of how you’ll never be where they are. The blog you’re currently reading is a good example. Who among us feel we’ll ever be as successful as Copyblogger? Hell, who among us feel we’ll ever be a tenth as successful?

But what you may not really, truly understand — at least on a conscious level — is that not that long ago, Copyblogger had two subscribers, and both of them were Brian Clark.

What about Apple? That’s a big, successful company. Do you think Jobs and Wozniak always knew what they were doing, back in 1976 when they sold Apple I kits that didn’t even have keyboards? Ronald Wayne apparently didn’t think much of the little startup’s prospects, considering he sold out of it for $800.

So how did Steve Jobs turn it into a half-trillion dollar company and a cultural icon? He did it the same way that Pace got better at DDR.

The big (unsexy) secret of great success

To improve what he was doing, Steve Jobs practiced.

Both Jobs and Pace tried things and failed, tried things and failed. They learned from their mistakes and made small improvements every day, little by little.

One was on a dance pad and one was in a board room or talking design with Jony Ive, but the details don’t matter. The mastery of anything — be it gaming or business — comes only from practice.

Think about it. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Apple. Sure, we look at the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Mac lines today and think (rightly) that Apple is riding high. But do you remember the Apple Lisa? The Macintosh Portable? The ROKR? The Taligent OS? Yeah, neither does anyone else. Hell, Jobs even got kicked out of the company at one point — and stayed out for ten years.

Talk about an epic fail.

And really, it’s not that different from failing out of a DDR song with the arrows screaming past at impossible speeds. Both seem like insurmountable challenges … and even if you decide to face those challenges, they seem impossible pretty much the whole time you’re working on overcoming them.

But Apple didn’t give up, Jobs didn’t give up, and Pace didn’t give up. Little by little, day by day, they made tiny improvements.

And then one day, after more days of practice than they could count, both the DDR maestro and the Apple CEO achieved what used to seem flat-out impossible — be it a multi-billion-dollar industry titan or a ten-foot song played perfectly on Expert.

If I ever expect to be as good at Pace on Dance Dance Revolution, I had to practice, just as she practiced.

And really, that’s incredibly obvious. Nobody could disagree with the sentence above. Nobody would propose that practice wasn’t necessary, and that I should just take a course that would make me fabulous overnight by revealing some top-secret insider trick that only DDR gurus knew. That would be ludicrous.

So why do we think that’s a smart way to become successful in business?

The problem with shortcuts and tricks

Losers have tons of variety. Champions just take pride in learning to hit the same old boring winning shots.
~ Vic Braden, tennis coach

If your site isn’t getting the traffic you need or if your business is failing, you don’t need the latest, greatest, most amazing, new, trendy, magical trick out there.

What you need to do is to practice the basics. You need to bore yourself silly by making small, daily improvements in the fundamentals of business that have existed for hundreds of years.

Every day, get better at learning about your audience, getting more deeply in touch with their needs and desires.

Every day, make your communication a little bit clearer.

Every day, try to meet another person or two who might one day turn into a friend, a customer, or a fan.

Every day, polish your products and services a little, and make them of more value to those who buy them.

Every day, figure out how you can tell more of the people who might like what you sell about what you sell.

If you’re online, make sure there is a clear path between your reader’s problem, the information your site greets that reader with, and what you’re offering for sale.

Make sure you have given them an obvious way to opt in to your email list and a reason for doing so. Make sure you treat that list well and communicate with it often. Then put yourself in the shoes of your reader and ask yourself if you’d buy what you have to offer, from you, at the price you’re asking. Then, because you’re biased, ask other people to do the same.

And on the flip side, stop worrying about the latest and greatest tricks.

All the hot new LinkedIn strategies in the world won’t do you any good if your offer is unclear or uninteresting.

All the Pinterest traffic in the world is useless if you don’t engage the people who might come to you through Pinterest and get them to join your mailing list.

All the ad retargeting and automated webinars and search engine optimization in the world will get you nowhere if your content sucks, or if you conduct your business like an amateur.

Do tricks work?

Of course many do, in the short term.

Instead, sit down at your desk, face your keyboard, and get back to doing the work that matters.

Do the work

If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery,
it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.
~ Michelangelo

The unpleasant truth about mastering anything is that you must keep doing the work and practicing the fundamentals until you become excellent.

You don’t need the secret, amazing, known-only-to-gurus Easy Button. What you need is to put in the hours.

And so, in the absence of a Twitter Mastery course on Dance Dance Revolution, I simply went downstairs each day and failed my way through a few songs. It was slow going, and progress was hard to see. I just kept putting in the time and hoping that what felt like alchemy might produce results — just like I did when my business was new, when I was banging my head against the wall and operating on faith that time would yield results.

And — in the same way that I eventually made my first business dollar — I finally passed a song on the Easy level. That first online profit was literally one dollar, and that first DDR success was literally one song. Neither was even in the same city as my goal … but it was a start.

Then I tried a song or two that were harder. I screwed them up terribly. It was like the many times I made dumb, unsuccessful experiments in my business and failed. And yeah, it set me back, but I kept at it.

Practice makes perfect. Your mother had it right all along.

Oh yeah, heeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!

Now, I think I’ve made my point, but there’s clearly no way I’m getting out of this post without giving you a video of me dancing nowadays, so here we go:

Can’t see the video above? Watch it on YouTube.

Now if I can just design the next iPad and become a billionaire.

Well, give it time.

P.S: I didn’t dance that song perfectly, and there is actually another level of difficulty above what you see there. That higher level is clearly impossible, so of course I’m working on it now.

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Reader Comments (38)

  1. says

    “That higher level is clearly impossible, so of course Iā€™m working on it now.”

    Johnny, that line resonates and can be applied to both business and your DDR skills. While it can be hard to keep going at it again and again while seeing little progress, articles like these do serve as reminders that it does pay off in time.

    Great way to start the work day today! Thanks.

  2. says

    I love these analogy posts and this one is written really nicely. Maybe all you need to do for success is make your fingers ‘dance’ across the keyboard and write those awesome posts :). Also you do need to practise at this. I doubt there is any blogger who knows exactly what they are doing when they start out.

  3. says

    You’re so right, Johhny. Everyone’s mom (or dad) was right. Practice does make perfect. My daughter, who is 8 is taking violin. She’s not practicing much. I try to remind her what it takes to be good at anything. She tried to play me Jingle Bells last night. Not too great. But I smiled and told her those very words. I told her if she practiced for 30 minutes every day she would be awesome by Christmas. She liked that. I told her I had been playing guitar now for 35 years now so yeah, I make it look easy. I sucked once too.

    Now I’m combining that passion for music with blogging because I love writing and telling a great story too. You never saw my lousy blog posts over the last couple years that nobody read. But I stayed with it, took courses (yours included) and listened to my very few followers.

    Last week I had my first ever Copyblogger post published. Seems to have been well received. I got a nice chunk of new subscribers. I was ecstatic. A major goal achieved. And now there are so many more to get to my desired destination. But the lights are green ahead. And it all comes down to doing the work.

    Great way to start a Friday.

    By the way. Congrats on your DDR victory. If I could say something here. If you don’t make it to Dancing With The Stars it seems like you were moving more like an agile boxer. Maybe boxing’s in your future?

    Rock on!

  4. says

    Yep, just like learning any new skill it just takes practice and doing it the best you can every day, re-evaluate how you did yesterday and adjust. I heard best selling author Harvey MacKay say when I met him recently that “Practice doesn’t make perfect….but, perfect practice makes perfect.”
    Practicing the right things every day to the best you can.

  5. says

    Nice dance moves! and thank you for sharing this today. I’ve been a bit on the low about my business as it’s not bringing in what I want at this point and really needed a reminder that I just need to keep practicing and never give up. This article gave me new hope and reminded me that I have put a lot of work into what I’ve accomplished so far. Thanks for the awesome blog!

  6. says

    Hey, in the 5th para, it should be “Pace would BE the one” instead of “Pace would the one”. Just a minor typo error, I thought you should know about :) (no offense intended)

  7. says

    Morning Johnny.

    As a tennis teaching professional for the past 40+ years, your quote from the great Vic Braden obviously hit home with me as it relates to becoming a better online business owner.

    Trying to get my students to practice a few “same old boring” shots that have proven to be winners since the game was first played has been the only way they can improve.

    I believe that tennis players and online business owners intellectually understand that concept, but the boredom of the practice eventually steers them to look for quick fixes.

    I’ve been guilty of that with my online business.

    Thanks for this post and especially for the Vic Braden quote which is yet another affirmation that mastering the fundamentals of anything is the key to improvement and success.


    • says

      What kills me is that it’s a message nobody wants to hear. You can sell a course teaching one specific “super secret!!!” trick, but trying to teach the fundamentals is never an easy sell… even though that IS what makes the difference. I’ll bet that if more people would be willing to embrace the occasional bout of boredom, more people would have success.

  8. says

    I think EVERY Copyblogger post should have a video of Johnny dancing :) Next time – Salsa! Or Zumba!
    Seriously great post and love the reminder that we all need to keep practicing and keep our eye on the prize. Thanks!

  9. says

    That was absolutely hilarious! I was thinking the whole time…”there MUST be a video somewhere!” I, too, bought DDR and was horrified that first time out the gate I didn’t look like those kids with swag on the machines! Great point, great lesson. Thanks for sharing šŸ˜‰

  10. says

    Great post! Both entertaining and informative. It is good to be reminded that the “overnight success” stories we hear about are not the whole story. I particularly like the comment that not that long ago copyblogger had 2 subscribers and they were both named Brian Clark. Very funny. Maybe I need to get DDR for my kids… they would enjoy watching their father fall on his face :)

  11. says

    I remember the first time I played a DDR song that had 16th notes in it. I walked off the pad in frustration, shouting, “What the hell?! That’s not even POSSIBLE!”

    Now I dance 16th notes with no problem, and when I played my first song with 32nd notes in it, and caught myself saying, “What the hell?! That’s not even POSSIBLE!” I paused, and opened myself to the possibility that someday, I’ll dance those 32nd notes – with enough practice.

  12. says

    Johnny! You didn’t convince me to play Dance Dance Revolution BUT…you inspire me to become more and achieve more. I see myself in you and I always tell myself ”If Johnny did it, I can too” (in a good way you know). It seems like all I’ve been working on for so many years are starting to pay off…I’m so excited because I KNOW this is the beginning of a new life for me, a life I’ve dreamed about for a long time, a LEGENDARY life! Thanks

  13. says

    So true. I’ve been involved in capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial arts and dance) for over 10 years, and sometimes when I teach beginners it brings me back to how awkward and seemingly impossible the movements feel in those early days – things that now I do second-nature.

    Now I’m taking my first floundering steps in online business, and although I’ve seen some small-potatoes success, it still feels awkward, fragile, and just plain difficult… but I have faith that I can practice and improve!

  14. says

    I’ve done DDR and you’re right on about practice makes perfect – well, maybe at least better.

    And this was an awesome article!!! I need to be reminded that it takes hard work and steady improvement and it will pay off. Thanks for the encouragement.

  15. says

    OK Johnny B…the first thing I thought of when I saw the video (honestly) is that I need to go out and buy a Wii and DDR immediately. Great job! But, I did read the whole post, and it made a lot of random thoughts pinging around in my brain crystalize and come together into one golden nugget of truth…I need to practice…and not just in my own mind (although that is where it starts). And in order to practice, I need to whittle out the extraneous “stuff” (like reading about all the shortcuts) and get behind my keyboard on a daily basis. Thanks for this!

    • says

      I started with the idea of “you really do have to practice and feel like an idiot for a while in everything” and then the idea that I wanted an excuse to put a DDR video on this blog. The hard part was then making a post fit those two larger goals.

  16. says

    Hey Johnny, Thanks for such a motivational post! I was all smiles throughout reading the entire post. The age old sayings like “Practice makes a man perfect” and “Failures are a pillar of success” are all true when you believe in it.Taking small steps, improving day by day will all build up to make everything better at the end. Whoever is successful will definitely tell you that it took them years of toil to reach where they are. And this policy just does not apply to the business arena, it is true in every aspect if you keep trying, because that is what is going to take you al the way down.

  17. says

    I love this post. I’m building my business but it does take a lot of work and persistence. It’s very motivational to know it will pay off. As they say, “do what you love and the money will follow.” I believe that’s because it’s only when you’re doing what you love, that you persist long enough for it to pay off. By the way, it looks like you’re having a lot of fun with the dancing!

  18. says

    How can I ignore a post that quotes J.S.Bach! :)
    That man’s achievements are unreal – try writing a small opera each week for years. And we can look at that and say, well, that’s why he was Bach. But the reality is, apart from talent, of course, he worked his ass off all his life and died at his desk – that’s how we have his great unfinished fugue.
    So, yes, hard work, guided by reading feedback and fueled by a passion, is probably the only path to big success.
    Thanks for an honest post :)

  19. says

    Nice post every thing seems to be difficult at starts but when comitted to work hard then u ll difinetly get the success taht u want. This post encourage the peoples who want to do some thing but hesitate

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