How making sourdough is EXACTLY the same as making a startup.

Bear with me… isolation has done a lot of weird things to people.


TikTok lipsyncing, the quest for the perfect zoom background, idiots people injecting disinfectant, and memes… thousands upon thousands of memes. But one oddity has risen above all the rest (pun most definitely intended), homebrew sourdough.

I’m one of those nutcases, one of those clinically deranged individuals choosing to spend their time in isolation avoiding their family by dedicating themselves wholly and solely to the craft of making really good bread. For me, sourdough is like BBQ. There are a thousand and one ways to fuck it up, but there are just as many ways to get it right.

And that…reminded me of something else.

HOW MAKING SOURDOUGH IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS MAKING A STARTUP

How making sourdough is the same as making startups
Not a single loaf I’ve baked has looked like this

1: EVERYONE IS AN EXPERT EXCEPT YOU

No matter how good your sourdough is, there are a hundred and one bakers out there with better loaves than you. There are blog posts and YouTube videos and books and magazines devoted to making you feel bad about yours.

Because here’s the thing. The only people in life who get to talk about their successes are the ones that were actually successful at it. This is the root of imposter syndrome in baking and as a founder. You never see where you sit on the full scale, you only ever see yourself compared to the ones that do it well. So of course, you will always feel shit in comparison.

That’s really unhealthy.

This one didn’t work, neither did 15 others that looked exactly the same.

2: MOST OF THE ADVICE IS WRONG AND WON’T WORK FOR YOU

You could read 10 books on Sourdough and every one of them will have a different “secret for success”. The only thing you can know for sure is that half of the advice is wrong, and half is right, and the challenge is to work out which half. Because, and here’s the real trick… nobody else is in your kitchen, with your tools, your materials, your ingredients or even your latitude on this blue marble we call Earth. And all of that matters.

There is little point following the advice of a baker living through Scotland’s chilly winter, baking bread with Rye flour in a professional kitchen if you are baking through an Australian Summer with half a bag of White Wings and a brickie’s trowel.

The only way to find success is to… well… find it yourself.

Alan Downie – Keen Amateur Sourdough Baker

3: EVEN WHEN YOU GET IT RIGHT, IT’S PROBABLY NOT ACTUALLY HELPFUL FOR NEXT TIME

Prior to writing this post, I’d baked a lot of sourdough. Over the past couple of months, I’ve probably baked 30+ loaves. I think I’ve shared three photos with friends and the rest went straight in the bin. Of the three that I shared photos of, only one was really edible. I’d gone through a Costco sized bag of flour for half a loaf of reasonably enjoyable bread. But here’s the kicker. I have no idea why that one worked, and the other 35 didn’t.

This one nearly worked…

There are so many variables, so many details, so many intricacies to getting it right, that even though I definitely got it right that one time, there’s absolutely no guarantee that I will get it right next time. Air temperature, type of flour, age of flour, the way the bloody flour was processed, the temperature of the water (distilled or tap?), kneading time, kneading speed, kneading firmness, not kneading at all, how you stretch and fold, how often you stretch and fold, how long you stretch and fold, proving temperature, proving location, proving bowl composition, the type of cover you put over it, did you oil it, or flour it, or neither, then the cutting, and the shaping, the type of banneton you used, and did you even call it a banneton when you ordered it of Amazon or did you call it a brotform (German for BREAD FORM, because of course it is)? And, most importantly, did you give your sourdough starter a name?

Meet Gru, our family’s sourdough starter. Made from flour, water and a fucktonne of patience

4: NOBODY ACTUALLY KNOWS HOW TO DO THIS AND ANYONE WHO SAYS THEY DO IS A BLOODY LIAR

Unless the person you are learning from owns a bakery that specializes in making sourdough, their advice means absolutely nothing. Doing something right once is very different to doing it right thousands of times over. BUT even if they DO own a bakery that specializes in sourdough, their advice still means absolutely nothing because you have none of the tools or equipment or ingredients they have.

If, on the other hand, the person you are taking advice from doesn’t own a bakery, the truth of the matter is that they don’t know what they are doing, they just got lucky.  They too messed up a dozen loaves before getting one good enough to take a photo of, and even then, it didn’t look that good anyway. But, as I say, you only hear about the successes, not the litany of failures along the way. Don’t be discouraged! Or do! Because this shit is hard and you’ll probably fail too.

5: EVEN WHEN YOU GET IT RIGHT YOU CAN (AND WILL) STILL FAIL

I’ve spent nearly a month baking sourdough. Actually, scratch that, I spent a month trying to make a starter and then I spent a month making sourdough. I’ve made a lot of loaves. And then… finally… I got one that I was proud of! I actually finally nailed it after I’d already written this post.

For a while, I was worried that I’d have to steal someone else’s photo and pretend I could bake, but no… I can now confidently say that I perfected the art of baking! When it came out of the oven, I was so pleased, no no no, I was proud. I had delivered to the world a new source of love. A bundle of joy. The embodiment of my heartfelt love for baking.

At last! The sourdough of my dreams!

It was hardly an instagrammable masterpiece, and it wouldn’t have done for the cover of a magazine. And, ok, the ear wasn’t great, and it was a little light in colour, and the crumb was far from perfect… but it was good. And it tasted good. And then I served it to my family… and they informed me, bluntly without hesitation (or malice), that they actually don’t really like sourdough… and even if they did, what would they eat it with anyway? 

And here’s the thing… I could’ve saved myself 2 months and umpteen kilograms of flour by walking down to the local bakery and spending eight bucks on a loaf of literally perfect sourdough and finding out whether they wanted this thing or not before I committed months of my time to making it.

The loaf from our local bakery that was significantly better than mine (and faster to get)

6. THIS BLOG POST HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH STARTUPS

I started off this post with the intention of relating sourdough to startups and how we can all learn important startup lessons from the struggle that is sourdough baking… Or was it the other way round?

But there are no real lessons here, or anywhere else. Sourdough is hard. Startups are hard. The only way for you to succeed is to roll up your sleeves and give it a go. Learn from those close to you, learn from those you trust. You can’t learn all this from a book, you can only learn it by getting your arse out of your chair and doing it.

And if you came to a clickbaity startup blog post to learn how to make Sourdough, you’ve discovered the most important startup advice I can give you – always question the quality of advice you are given and the experience of the person giving it.

About Alan - Alan Downie has been working in web for over 20 years. Alan was the founder of Fivesecondtest, UsabilityHub and BugHerd. He participated in the Startmate (Australia) and 500 Startups (US) accelerator programs, before becoming a mentor at partner at Startmate. He recently launched Splitrock Studio, a startup studio based in Melbourne, Australia.

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