Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Failing—to Win

How leaders turn fumbles into fodder for success.

Know Thy Market

Merisant also blundered into a market and learned to prosper from the experience. The Chicago-based manufacturer of the ubiquitous restaurant coffee sweetener Equal embarked on a new product in the sweetener category that came a cropper. “We decided to innovate and took Equal, which is aspartame, and mixed it with sugar, thinking this is a great idea,” says Paul Block, CEO of privately owned Merisant, with $300 million in annual revenue.

It turned out to be anything but. Not that the idea didn’t have some legs under it. “Our thinking was that it would taste more like sugar at half the calories,” Block explains. “We did beta quantitative research that indicated that it would most certainly find a market. It looked great—on paper. Well, it was a bomb. We spent $20 million to $30 million on launching Equal Light, as we called it, and it went nowhere.”

What went wrong? “There was no frame of reference for the category,” Block replies. “Your wife says pick up two percent milk and you get it—this is good old milk with less fat. Same thing when she says pick up Equal—a sweetener that is not a sugar. But, consumers couldn’t conceptualize putting together an artificial sweetener with a natural sweetener. It was ahead of its time.”

From Equal Light’s ashes, a Phoenix rose—PureVia. “What we did was take two natural sweeteners—raw sugar and stevia rebaudiana, which comes from the leaves of a South American shrub—and blended them into a whole new product category,” Block says. “This isn’t sugar with something synthetic. It’s a fully natural high-intensity sweetener at half the calories.” Stevia has 300 times the sweetness of sugar, but is very low in carbohydrates and has a negligible effect on blood glucose levels.

Rather than simply blending two ingredients as it did with Equal Light, Merisant coats each raw sugar crystal with stevia via a proprietary spray-drying process. “Three months ago, it hit store shelves in Wal-Mart and Kroger and is being distributed by food service channels to restaurants—to tremendous success,” Block says. “We knew we had a great idea with Equal Light; we just went about it the wrong way. If at first you don’t succeed, you try again.”

Even if you do succeed, you can’t rest on your laurels. That was the lesson learned at Cbeyond, a midsized, publicly traded provider of integrated local and long distance telephony services and high-speed Internet access. Founded in 2000, Cbeyond initially capitalized on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephony technology to provide local phone and Internet services, as well as Internet-based applications, to small businesses. “From a small startup, we grew fast to $500 million in annual revenue,” says Jim Geiger, Cbeyond founder and CEO.

Then, business stalled. Although the company’s growth rate, revenues and customer retention metrics were healthy, it had become incrementally less profitable. “We had stopped innovating,” Geiger says. “We were focused on optimizing the existing business, but the returns were diminishing. That was my mistake. We were resting on our laurels, and atrophy set in.”

Cbeyond picked itself up, dusted itself off and started all over again. “We built a range of new products and capabilities last year,” Geiger points out. “For example, we now offer our services in the Cloud—using our own servers—at improved prices. The customers’ apps and data reside in our data centers on our dedicated network, a competency we had but didn’t fully invest in. It’s a new revenue stream for us, one that offers a 60 percent higher revenue-per-customer metric than the old strategy.”

The company’s reversal of fortune (both cash flow and EBIDTA rose in the months after the Cloud offering was made last year) illustrates the folly in the old adage, “Nothing succeeds like success.” As these personal admissions of failure reveal, mistakes not only go with the territory, they provide useful lessons. “Failure isn’t necessarily something bad,” says Lafley.

On that, Dale Carnegie would agree. “Two of the surest stepping stones to success,” he wrote, are “discouragement and failure.”

Fail on!

Russ Banham ( is a freelance writer and book author.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.