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5 Lessons Startup Founders Can Learn from Salsa Dancing

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Co-authored by Jackie Mahendra

You've been dreaming of launching something new. Perhaps you've already taken the plunge. Theories and coaching manuals abound on how, when and with whom to start a new company or organization with the potential to change the world or "disrupt" old ways of doing things.

Well, here are a few best practices we've gleaned -- not just from our years working with startup leaders, lean methodologies and new organizations (and launching our own companies and social good ventures) -- but from nearly a decade spent sweating away at salsa clubs.

The good news? We think getting your groove on can help you become a better, more nimble, and more successful startup leader. Here are a few "best practices" you can put into action today.

1: Stop taking lessons. Start dancing.

When you're a new dancer, you still have to count all the steps in your head. 1-2-3-4, 5-6-7-8. Once you've learned the basics, however, it's best to ditch the classes, get out on the floor, and start dancing as soon as possible.

Of course, there's value in taking lessons and bringing in experts to guide you as you take on more sophisticated moves. But there's nothing like being amongst a range of dancers, feeling the music, and experiencing it all first hand. If you're not hitting the nightclubs or salsa events on a regular basis, you may as well stop taking classes now and go back to watching Dancing With The Stars in your pajamas.

Same story with startup teams. You need to "feel the music" of testing your idea or product in the real world as soon as possible. Don't get stuck in endless loops of consulting with experts and month-long planning sessions, only to realize you don't actually know if you have a product that real people want.

Get out on the dance floor. Go forth in search of the "real world." Make yourself a little bit uncomfortable -- or better yet, a lot.

2: Don't stare at your feet. Look up!

Salsa dancing newbies tend to gaze down at their feet to make sure they're not stepping on their partner's toes. Unfortunately, that's a really a bad idea. Not only do you lose the opportunity to actually enjoy the dance with your partner, you will likely miss a key cue that comes from being connected through your core, upper body and gaze. It turns out the feet are just one very small part of the story -- and focusing only on them can make you lose site of the fuller experience.

Looking up in a startup context means keeping your eye on the long-term vision and not just focusing on the day-to-day work that's right in front of you. Work is only valuable when it's serving to advance your core mission, and if you're keeping your head down for days and weeks on end, you may find yourself spending your time on tasks that don't get you where you want to go.

Time wasted in this way can be crippling to a startup, where limited resources are a given. Chances are you're operating on a very short runway. So, stop looking at your feet, and focus on where you're going!

3: Pivot quickly, but don't forget to signal.

When you want to lead your partner to do a spin in salsa dancing, you start with a "prep" hand motion that lets them know the spin is coming. Not prepping can often lead to a surprise that ends in an awkward, rushed and haphazard turn. Or worse yet, tangled hands or limbs -- decidedly not sexy.

The startup world is obsessed with "pivots." After a cycle of "build, test, learn," it may be time to ditch your current approach and try out a new one. Leaders of startups often get stuck in one of two traps: pivoting too slowly by lingering on a course of action that just isn't showing results; or pivoting without warning by not giving team members a heads up that something is about to change. When your team doesn't get a signal in advance, they are in danger of being caught flat-footed as you attempt to move forward, which can be a disastrous experience for everyone involved.

Your salsa partners will only want to keep dancing with you if they're enjoying the experience, and if you're repeatedly leading moves without signaling, they'll go dance with someone else instead.

4: Fail gracefully.

A common piece of advice you hear from folks in the startup world is "fail fast." We agree. The trick in both startup land and salsa dancing is also to remember to fail gracefully.

Fail without skipping a beat. Keep the dance going.

The worst thing you can do is stop and spend a lot of time dwelling on a mistake that your partner probably didn't even notice. The best you can do is smile and keep flowing into the next move.

In the startup context, failing gracefully means quickly telling your partners or investors about what you tried that didn't work, as well as how you are changing course as a result. It means not getting stuck on bad results until they become a depressing black hole. It means letting go of what's clearly not working and moving on quickly to something new.

5: Know your partner.

Dancing is a give and take with your partner. Whether you're the "lead" or the "follow," you need to be paying attention to how the other person is reacting to each move. In fact, as you gain a deeper understanding of your partner's style, you begin dancing on a whole different level. It's like someone switching on the lights after you've been stumbling around in the dark.

Likewise, for your startup product or service to really take off, you need to understand your users' needs and wants. Spend the time to get to really know who they are and what makes them tick. Go out and talk to them, listen to their feedback, and see how they act and react.

Understanding your users at a fundamental level is one of the toughest challenges in a startup, but if you can figure it out, you'll have flipped the switch and dramatically increased your potential for success.

So, whether you're launching a startup or taking up salsa dancing, you're going to have your work cut out for you. We hope these lessons come in handy while you're still fumbling around in the dark -- and maybe even help you find your groove!

See you on the dance floor.

Follow Jackie Mahendra on Twitter for more: @jaxsun.