Curtis SparrerCurtis Sparrer

A media contact once referred to one of her clients as a “legacy” company, intending it as a compliment. But that’s not how I took it. My response was, “Oh, no. That’s the worst thing you could say in tech!”

“Really?” she said. “I’d love to know more about that.”

That’s when I started my research. But I was surprised to discover there’s very little information available to explain how “legacy” became such a dirty word in the tech world.

You don’t want to be seen as a legacy company

In all other contexts, legacy describes something or someone iconic, an unforgettable classic. It can also refer to what someone is remembered for, such as the legacy left behind by a national hero. In tech, however, it’s a nice way of saying obsolete.

O'Dwyer's Nov. '19 Technology PR Magazine
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '19 Technology PR Magazine.

A legacy system is a digital tool or application that’s reached its expiration date. Generally, these platforms are clunky and inefficient compared to newer solutions. But people are stuck using them because it’s too expensive and time-consuming to switch to something better. You see this all the time in enterprise and government settings. It’s why many organizations still rely on fax machines, much to the chagrin of … well, everyone.

So, when you’re running a tech company, “legacy” is the last word you ever want to be associated with. The whole idea behind technology is to invent something new, to disrupt an industry or develop a life-changing innovation. The absolute worst way to position yourself is to make your product sound dated and old.

The way you articulate your vision is everything

When you’re a founder or CEO, you’re the first person to describe your company. And if you’re not doing it in a way that captures the market’s attention and proves that you’re the new best thing, no one’s going to feel excited about you. No one is going to invest in you. And, definitely, no one is going to buy you.

You need to articulate a compelling vision, and then you need to get other people to agree with it. You must communicate what your company does and how it’s going to change the world in a way that drums up momentum. In other words, you must communicate a clear, repeatable and unique message.

It takes a village

If you’re the only one calling your company awesome and disruptive, few people will believe you. So, the next recommended step is to recruit influencers, contacts and customers who love your business and turn them into brand champions.

This works even for companies seen as “legacy.”  After making major updates or building a new system, you can get the word out through these guerilla tactics. People who have tried your revolutionized platform will post that you’re now “cutting edge,” if you get the message right.

When in doubt, focus on your strengths

With so many companies vying for the title of most innovative or disruptive, it can be hard to stand out. These are the right kinds of words, but they aren’t the only words you can use to position your company as a leader. Describing your specific strengths is always a good idea.

Any entrepreneur or C-level executive needs to do this exercise to find the right message. How can you position yourself against the competition and make sure you win? It takes some tinkering to land on the right answer. But once you have it, it’s an amazing lever to propel your company forward.

Your message matters

Today, every company is a tech company in some respect. Fortune 500 companies all have an IT department and want to build the next big digital thing, if they can stay ahead of the scrappy startups on their heels. Competition is fierce in industries across the board.

The bottom line is that you need a strong, consistent message to get ahead of the pack. As a leader, you have to be thoughtful about how you describe your company. And you need a clear strategy to elevate that message.

Dirty words like “legacy” can hurt your business in more ways than you may think. It’s hard to change perceptions once people have an idea about you. It’s possible, but you’re far better off positioning yourself correctly from the beginning.

So, think about that one thing you want to be known for. Your world-changing legacy, so to speak. Just don’t call it that out loud.

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Curtis Sparrer is Co-Founder and Principal at Bospar in San Francisco.