What Sourdough Baking Can Teach Us About Bootstrapping a Startup

A sourdough loaf illustrating the success of a startup

There’s nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread.

Your knife cuts into the crust and releases that heady aroma.

The taste is complex, a slight tang of sourness balancing its natural sweetness.

It brings thoughts of warm country kitchens, memories of family and friends.

The fact that you made this yourself heightens the satisfaction.

You took basic ingredients, some simple skills and knowledge and produced something comforting, sustaining and valuable.

Something to be proud of.

How do you get the same feeling about your startup?

Well you could just buy a bakery!

If you have that sort of money, expertise and a thirst for danger, you won’t want to hang around here!

For the rest of us, we understand the value and satisfaction of creating something from scratch.

Bootstrapping a startup business is very much like baking sourdough bread.

It’s all about the culture

You don’t buy the yeast, you grow it yourself.

The wild yeast microbes and lactobacilli (friendly bacteria) are all around us. We capture a few and nurture them in a way that allows them to grow and out-compete any harmful bacteria. Every sourdough culture is unique.

You keep the culture alive by regularly feeding it. There’s an amazing cooperation between the microbes that produces just the right mix to breathe life into your dough and make wonderfully tasty bread.

Much like the community around a blog or social presence. It’s an ecosystem, a network of contacts, your email list, your Twitter following and Facebook friends.

You must treat it with care and attention.

Feed it with good quality content, engage and share to build trust.

It becomes a living force that breathes life into your startup.

This is not just a list of potential customers. This is a community that will support you.

It gives you the insights, knowledge and amplification to carry your message to a much wider audience.

Now you need something for it to work with.

Assemble your ingredients

When I bake a loaf , I take some culture and mix it with strong white flour, water and a little salt. That’s it. Of course the choice of flour can be important. You may want a wholemeal Granary loaf or perhaps a dark rye with a hint of caraway seeds. Using organic flour sourced from your local mill may add a dash of authenticity.

The best approach, just like a business start-up, is keep it simple.

Don’t buy a 32kg sack of speciality flour straight away. You’ll be locked-in to making only that bread for quite a while!

You need to give yourself a chance to grow.

Control the variables. Manage the risk.

Start with simple strong white flour.

Experiment with kneading technique, oven temperature, water, try some batches, adjust the quantities. See what works and what doesn’t.

As Seth Godin says:

Fail fast and cheap. Fail often. Fail in a way that doesn’t kill you”.

When you’re bootstrapping a business, you may know exactly what you want to do for your customers. You know where to get the raw materials, the expertise and how to bargain.

At some stage though, you’ll be faced with funding a major purchase. Perhaps you want to push forward with a great branding design and media campaign. You may have to pay up-front for stock to get better prices.

This is a risk, just like that sack of hand milled organic spelt that is propping the kitchen door open.

Look out for pay-as-you-go services. Keep as much as possible digital. The “freemium model” is there to help you grow.

You’ve got your mix of ingredients and a rough idea of where you’re going so now it’s time to…

Work that dough

This is the part where you roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty!

For some, this is the best bit.

You’re in contact with the dough. It starts out a bit lumpy, flour and water all over the place.

But gradually you gather it.

You push and squeeze, you feel the dough become smooth and elastic. Strands of protein build the structure that lets the microbes blow the bubbles that make the loaf grow.

It can be hard work, but strangely satisfying. You learn so much more about what the ideal dough feels like when its ready.

Some may say, why bother? Buy yourself a machine, do it automatically.

If you’re planning to work through that big sack of flour and supply the village with your first batch then fine; but that is not lean and agile startup bootstrapping.

The First Proof

You need to prove that the culture is working. Your dough is positioned in the heat of the kitchen. If it doubles in size then all is well.

This is where you test the strength of materials, skill and culture.

If it doesn’t prove, you need to work out why. There’s no point going to the trouble and expense of firing up the oven, if the bread will never rise.

Following the principles of Eric Ries’s “Lean Startup Methodology”, this is when you show your community the first tentative prototype of your business offer.  Your “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP). This is where you can learn if it will appeal or not. If adjustments are needed, you work them into the design and grow.

If it fails, you “pivot”, try a different approach.

Let your prospective customers and audience have a role in the design of the product using this iterative process.

They will feel involved and invested in your success.

The growth of your business has already started, now is the time to launch…

Shape And Bake

The strength of your dough is proven. You “knock it back” by tipping it out onto the work-surface and fold it over itself a few times. Forming it into a ball you put it into a floured basket or “banneton” for the final proving of a couple of hours. The “banneton” gives it that recognisable spiral pattern and helps to dry the skin of the dough to create that wonderful crust.

After tipping the dough onto a baking tray and 25 minutes in the 200 degree heat of the oven, you can look forward to your first taste of success.

By this stage you know what your audience and customers want. You’ve tried different shapes, mixes, and added ingredients.

You’ve started to develop a brand.

This is the moment of truth.


Tasting the results

As you open the oven door a sense of euphoria tells you this is good!

The dough is transformed into a golden crusty loaf.

That aroma of freshly baked bread hits you.

No wonder estate agents advise house sellers to put some bread in the oven before a viewing. This feels like home.

This is what building a successful business feels like. You created this from scratch. You made it.

Take a slice and savour it.

Learn, repeat and increment the scale

Every time you bake a loaf; check the texture, crust, evenness of bake and flavour. Above all, is it consistent with expectations. If there are things that aren’t quite right, try to work out what you did differently.

In our digital world you can use a wealth of tools to analyse your results.

Research trends, work out how you are performing against the competition. Small things can have a big effect as they are amplified by your community.

As you become more sure of your market you can grow.

Push the scale up a notch. There may come a point where you need to finance a growth point. Make sure you are building as many and varied revenue streams as possible.

Digital businesses scale very well. Most of the technology and expertise can be accessed on a pay per use basis.

If you’re planning to fund a bricks and mortar business it makes sense to build a digital startup business first. Sell some of your expertise via eBooks, training courses and videos.

Scaling a sourdough baking business would take some significant investment. Baking a few loaves for your friends and neighbours won’t make you rich. At some point the economics of scale catch up and you’ll need to find premises, equipment and employees to cater for demand.

You already have an engaged community following your recipes and purchasing your premium digital material.

When the time comes, you’ll already have an engaged community to help you launch that Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

Now that you’ve helped yourself to a slice of toast and honey, what are you waiting for?

Bake yourself a business!


4 thoughts on “What Sourdough Baking Can Teach Us About Bootstrapping a Startup

  1. Martin, I really enjoyed your post.  I love to bake bread and my husband and I have started three different companies, so your words “proofed” well!  Congratulations on being one of the SBO winners. I look forward to exploring your website and learning more about your business.

  2. Mary Lou Green I am so pleased you enjoyed the post and thank you for the “proof” of your reassuring words! 🙂 It is good to know that people with a track record in start-ups resonate with what I am trying to do. I’m at that stage where I have a lot of advice and support to give but need to find the best ways to share it in the places where it will do most good.  I think that applies to most of us in the SBO community!

  3. MartinGBEdwards Mary Lou Green You are so right, Martin.  Marketing and public relations are critical to small businesses, and the landscape has changed so much with the advent of social media.  That is our biggest challenge right now in ramping up our e-greeting business that removes the card company as the middle man.  This is where the faint of heart quit but those of us who have been in the trenches know that this is where we need to be curious, determined and willing to make changes if necessary.  We definitely are building this business by pay-as-you go.

  4. Mary Lou Green Sounds like we are on a simmilar path and singing from the same hymn sheet here! I’d like to get a discussion group/mastermind thing going to toss ideas around informally. Maybe set it up as a Google community.  If you are interested it would be great to have your input.Drop me an email or DM on Twitter

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