Using a Startup Mindset to Benefit a Legacy Business

When you think of innovation and dynamism in the business world, what comes to mind first? Maybe it’s a young company that’s growing at hyper speed. Maybe it’s a charismatic young founder who’s using technology to solve big problems. The common denominator in these examples is one word: young.

But innovation and dynamism aren’t just for startups and young businesses. In fact, if you consider some of the largest, most successful, longstanding brands in the world, those organizations’ ability to thrive has hinged upon their ability to innovate and adapt while still delivering the product or service their existing customers have come to rely on.

I’m the CEO at Cempa Community Care, a community health organization in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When I was brought on as a consultant in 2015, the organization was in disarray. Our executive director had just left, along with the finance director. At that time, the organization was still operating under its original name, Chattanooga CARES (Council on AIDS, Resources, Education, and Support), and was nearly 30 years old. It was founded upon a stellar mission, but it wasn’t thriving. The more I dug in, the more passionate I became about righting the ship. I was quickly appointed interim executive director and eventually CEO.

Today, our organization is in a great spot. We hold a strong financial position with a healthy balance sheet and have increased revenue streams by diversifying and expanding. Over the past seven years, I’ve learned so much about how a legacy organization can use a startup mentality to stay relevant and meet clients’ evolving needs. For Cempa, that meant a rebrand, updates to our services, staffing changes and more. For you, it might mean undergoing a digital transformation to better connect with customers in the digital age. Whatever the need, the following tips will help keep you on the right track.

  1. Make sure your public-facing brand represents your current existence.

When Chattanooga CARES was founded in 1986, the United States was at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In our area, community members came together to find support in a time when resources were limited and stigmas were high.

Over the years, things changed. Prevention and treatment methods advanced. Eventually, and thankfully, HIV was no longer a death sentence. Survivors and their loved ones still needed support, but the type of support they needed evolved.

When I joined the organization, one of the first things we did was undergo a rebrand. Sure, much of our community was familiar with Chattanooga CARES and the wonderful services it provided. But just the organization’s services had evolved so drastically, it was time for a substantial change to our brand.

Now we’re Cempa Community Care. “Cempa” means champion in Old English. We are still championing the health and wellness of underserved communities, but we’re doing so much more than HIV/AIDS care. Our new brand better represents who we are today.

Businesses change. Customers’ needs change. Take a moment to reflect on where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you’d like to go in the future. If your existing brand doesn’t do a good job of projecting the right image, it’s OK to undergo some level of a rebrand — even one as significant as changing your name.


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  1. Consider a “launch.”

We think of launches when we think of new businesses. But legacy businesses can have launches, too!

For Cempa, relaunching our new brand with strategic intention was critical. People in our community had known and loved Chattanooga CARES since 1986 — we had to make sure not to lose them, while also earning attention from community members who may not have been familiar with us at all.

Our relaunch entailed an overhaul of our entire image. We had a careful plan for updating and redirecting our website, pushing our new message out through social channels, and perhaps most importantly, focusing heavily on public relations and earned media. As we navigated such a big change, making sure we were able to control the narrative and answer questions was very important. Working with media members in the various outlets that our target audience follows helped us accomplish this with great success.

You don’t have to completely change your company’s entire image to take advantage of the good mojo a “launch” can bring. Are you planning to add a service line to your company’s existing suite? Are you targeting a new industry? These types of changes can be treated the same way you would the launch of a new business and can gain a great deal of positive attention for your legacy brand.


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  1. Evaluate culture, and make repairs quickly if needed.

In my role as CEO, my staff is the thing I am most passionate about. The work our organization does makes such a big impact on our community, and without staff members who are trained well and empowered to do a job they enjoy, we simply wouldn’t be able to do the work we do.

When I joined Cempa, the team was in a state of serious distress. Trust was diminished, emotions were high. It was just a rough time all around. But one of the quickest ways to remedy some of those issues was to make sure our culture was right and that each of our team members understood and had bought into our future plans.

When I think of the “startup mindset,” culture is huge — a “good” culture perhaps serving as the most foundational marker of success for many young businesses. I can’t think of a startup that doesn’t lead with culture in their hiring and retention plans. After all, most startups are run by and, peopled with, a younger generation of talent, and we know this demographic values those intangibles a great culture can bring. Legacy businesses would be wise to take the same approach.

When I think of the “startup mindset,” culture is huge — a “good” culture perhaps serving as the most foundational marker of success for many young businesses.

At the outset of my Cempa tenure, morale was low. With no executive director to set the tone and help everyone understand where the organization was going, we were losing staff left and right — and to my dismay, some of those people were the talented and passionate people we needed on our team.

That’s when I knew we needed to rebuild our culture — and fast. This effort has to come from the top and be supported at every level. As CEO, I had to talk the talk and walk the walk. Our staff had to know where we were going as an organization and how each individual’s contributions were going to help us get there.

Culture looks different for every organization, but I think the first question you can ask to evaluate yours is: Are we putting people first? If you can’t truthfully answer “yes” to this question, you need to figure out how you can.

As a testament to how successful putting your people first can be, I succeeded in winning back some of our greatest employees who left during the period of tumult. I can truly say that few things have made me prouder in my career.

It’s worth the work

So we’ve talked a lot about legacy businesses running in distress — but if yours is running more smoothly, you may be thinking: This doesn’t sound like it’s worth the effort. I’d still challenge you to consider what long-term benefit you might gain from undergoing a few of these steps. After all, your legacy business is building your legacy.


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