Excerpt from Panera founder and former CEO Ron Shaich’s book: ‘Starting a business is like an addiction’

Ron Shaich is the founder and former chairman and CEO of Panera Bread. Courtesy of Ron Shaich

Ron Shaich is the founder and former chairman and CEO of Panera Bread. The following is taken from his book, KNOW WHAT MATTERS: Lessons from Lifetime Transformations, Posted on October 24.

In retrospect, the birth of midwifery Panera looks like a happy heroic story of breakthroughs and innovation. But those years were hard, sometimes hard. I was almost 40, but some days I felt like I was twice that. Maybe I washed. I’m sure I’m tired. Part of me wished the board would move on and relieve me of this burden. It wasn’t so much that I was bored with the work. I was tired of business ruling my life.

It’s an uncomfortable truth about being an entrepreneur or company founder: you don’t own the business; the business owns you. It’s with you day and night – when you shower in the morning, when you’re going on a date with someone you want to be with right now, or when you’re going on that long-awaited vacation. Most people who start a business can neither extinguish nor follow through on their commitment. For me, it’s kind of addictive. I thrive on solving problems that no one else can, and often those solutions start to unfold when I go for a run or sit on the beach with my work problems.

This addiction comes at a high price. Dozens of family dinners are missed for every big quarter you can name. For every breakthrough innovation, there’s a personal tragedy you swallow as you continue to come to work every day. For every happy customer who shakes your hand and thanks you for creating something they love, there’s still a frustrated spouse at home who doesn’t understand why you’re late for dinner. For every IPO or sale that proves a company does, there’s a marriage that doesn’t. For every day you think your vision has come alive and you’ve found God, there are countless nights you wonder if there’s any rhyme or reason to the universe.

The Hollywood version of the entrepreneurial story is about high-flying, confident risk-takers who beat the odds and retire young. Say the word “modern” and most people imagine a well-heeled executive running between meetings, barking out directives dutifully followed by loyal employees. In the real world, entrepreneurship and leadership is a grind full of disappointments, setbacks, and failures. You are constantly faced with self-doubt. Even when your personal life is falling apart, you have to keep showing up for everyone.

My mother’s sudden death in 1992 began a decade of loss and grief, during which I simultaneously felt acute responsibility for the morale and livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers, yet experienced extraordinary personal pain. I believed in Panera and the opportunity we had, but success was not guaranteed until the future played out. I could see the end zone, but I felt like I was trying to run down the field with eleven defensive linemen behind me. I had a failing company, a rebellious board, and a seemingly endless parade of personal trauma. I wondered if I would ever get there or if Panera would be trampled in the mud somewhere in midfield.

For me, these are details that should be shared and not just as a dramatic beginning to a happy ending. Tough times are ahead, and anyone serious about building a business or making any kind of meaningful, lasting impact in the world must be prepared to accept that reality. To be clear – in sharing my personal pain and heartache, I’m not looking for sympathy. Believe me, I wouldn’t change a single thing because it was part of an amazing learning journey that made me the person I am today. And I’ve done some of my best work under the looming cloud of a lingering existential crisis. My hope is only to offer a truer account of entrepreneurial life—both the highs and the lows—because in reality they are often indistinguishable.

Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press. taken from KNOW WHAT MATTERS: Lessons from Lifetime Transformations By Ron Shaich. Copyright 2023 by Ron Shaich. All rights reserved.

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