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Founders of Outlier Automation on Industry Growth and Innovation

In this episode, Grace Clark sits down with G and Liz Brooks-Zak, co-founders of Outlier Automation, at the 2024 CSIA conference. G and Liz discuss their industry experience and company growth, the importance of knowledge transfer, and the journey of starting their own company, emphasizing shared sacrifices and strong communication.

Grace:
To get us started, if you could both just give me your name, title, and what company you’re with.

G Brooks-Zak:
I’m G Brooks-Zak, I am the co-founder and technical lead at Outlier Automation.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
And I’m Liz Brooks-Zak and I am co-founder and business operations lead at Outlier Automation.

Grace:
Just curious, what size of company are you guys?

G Brooks-Zak:
We are very small. We are five people and we’ve been in business for five years. And I think that we are kind of at this inflection point of growth, which is one of the reasons why we think it’s really important to be here [CSIA Conference], to really put in the right business practices to sustain that growth and ultimately be responsible for sustaining our business for our employees, not just ourselves.

Grace:
That’s something I really like about this conference: you can meet people from really small companies or just massive companies that are the big dogs of the industry. So as kind of a newer company in the industry, relatively, I mean, I’ve been talking to some people who have been in business for 40 years here. What do you guys see is changing about the industry and what are you looking forward to?

G Brooks-Zak:
Well, I think that from a technical perspective overall…well, first of all, no one ever knows what a control systems integrator does, and we already by definition have to touch a lot of aspects of technology and people’s businesses, and that is just growing in complexity and the knowledge of all of these great people that started these companies is as everyone knows, kind of teetering on the brink and needs to be transferred. And there has to be organizations that step in and carry that flame. But as an overall, I think that there’s going to be a lot of knowledge transfer even between companies and also the companies that we serve. And that is really important to be able to, operationally, continually make money using technology.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
And technology is just evolving so fast. I think that the melding of disciplines is going to become really critical. Things are only getting more complicated and you just have to be able to interface with so many different disciplines of engineering. And it’s important to really, to be a successful controls engineer, you have to have experience with so many of these different fields and it’s a challenge, but I see that as something really fun and exciting because you’re doing something new all of the time and there’s always this cool stuff coming out that makes you rethink your approach. How can I do things more efficiently? How can I have better solutions for my customers?

G Brooks-Zak:
I think that one of the roles of a control systems integrator, while it is very complicated, we are the subject matter experts and ultimately, even though it’s complicated, there is always a role to be said like, ‘Hey, this isn’t actually that complicated. Here are the simple aspects of this that are the key takeaways in what we do.’ And that’s really part of the value.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
Yes, that’s right. We’re responsible for doing all that research and being the experts and then distilling down what are the things you can actually use as a customer that are going to be reliable, that are going to be a good fit.

Grace:
You’re from the technical side [G], and you consider the business side [Liz]. Do you feel like you both experience the conference in a different way?

G Brooks-Zak:
That’s a good question. Personally, I actually don’t think so because I don’t see this conference so much as technical. In some aspects there are, there’s the vendor relationships that do give us those technical skill sets or tools I would say, but really it’s about the business aspect and I am still half owner of the company and the key aspects of what we’re doing and their strategies, there’s a technical strategy, but ultimately it’s the business.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
And I think it’s still been very beneficial for us both to be here, even though we’re kind of doing some of the same activities. Because if one person goes to a conference and comes back and is like, I have all these ideas, it’s a different kind of feel in different conversation rather than you both experiencing that and being able to collaborate. It’s more meaningful. And I am looking forward to tomorrow conference day 2]. I think that there’s going to be a more variety of breakout sessions and then we’re going to get to kind of split up. But yesterday I took the marketing track, you [G] did the best practices track, so we’ve been trying to split up where we can and really get the most out of this conference.

Grace:
That’s a really great idea. I mean, it’s great to see a duo like you guys, how you’re taking on the conference. Maybe I’m totally wrong, but I just haven’t seen as many couples taking on the CSIA conference, so that’s really exciting. Since you’ve owned your company for about five years, but you’ve been in the integration business a little bit longer; what led to your decision to start your own company like this? Because like they said in the keynote speaker jokingly, ‘we’re the weirdos, the ones who go and start a business.’ That’s hard.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
Yes, sure. So, we were at points in our careers where we had a combined skill set to be able to, we thought, make a business successful and it really helped having a partner that you trust, whether it’s someone you’re married to or someone you’re not married to, I think it is easier to start a business with someone rather than be all by yourself. But yes G had been working for years in the industry and then I had been working for years also in a technical role, more on the operational marketing side. And so we just had this combined skill set and we’re like, you know what? Let’s just give it a try. And worst case scenario, we go back to what we were doing before, not a lot to lose. And so we just quit our jobs, started our own company, and I was also pregnant at the time we moved across the country, so we kind of did it all together, which was actually kind of nice. It was like this fresh start, this new thing we were creating and we made it work. We’re still here.

G Brooks-Zak:
Yeah, I mean, I think that it’s more like a lifestyle or life decision to have this experience. And I think maybe if you don’t have that mindset, it gets really tough sometimes You have to keep going and it’s like this dedication to this vision or to yourself to keep doing it and make it work. And I think that was some of the pieces of the keynote specifically the “profit first,” where it’s you have this responsibility to keep it going once you go. And if you can’t make it work and make it profitable, it’s like why are you doing this? And I think that’s again, one of the reasons why this organization is so valuable to put those things in place that will make you more likely to succeed.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
I always think, too, that owning your own business, starting your own business, you have so many sacrifices [that] you’ll miss things you don’t want to miss. You’ll miss events, you’ll miss family functions, you’ll be up working late at night, whatever. And I think that for example, if my spouse was doing it and I was not, there would be a lot of resentment there, but I always feel like because we’re in this together, whenever one of us is making a sacrifice, it’s like our whole family is making a sacrifice together. And so that’s kind of the cool part about having a family business in any industry. It’s like everybody is doing it and so nobody feels left out and you’re making sacrifices, but you’re not alone.

G Brooks-Zak:
And I think that’s actually one of the interesting things. I mean, I would imagine in other industries it’s similar, but it seems like in CSIA in particular, there are a lot of really successful companies that they really were their spouses together doing that. And it’s interesting to hear their experiences and almost cathartic of what it’s like, right, with anything. You have to have really good communication and it’s like when you’re doing it with your spouse, it’s like you have to be even better at it. And it’s like you are making each other better because of it.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
That’s pretty cool.

Grace:
Well, it’s been really great to talk to you guys. You have a very unique perspective, at least a new perspective that I haven’t talked about on this podcast before. So, I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to talk with me. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you would want to talk about or maybe just add here towards the end?

Liz Brooks-Zak:
G, do you want to give a little pitch about our company?

G Brooks-Zak:
Sure. Yes. So we’re based in Fresno, California, so that’s central California. And we’re very close to the Bay Area and we do a lot of work in advanced manufacturing with new technologies or technologies that when people haven’t maybe applied automation to or traditional industrial automation. So, that’s given us a lot of cool exposure to how you can think about automation differently. And we do motion control and robotics applications, data integration, things that I just think fall under what people would say is like Industry 4.0. But not every organization is doing all aspects of that. And I think we have, with our experience that we’ve accumulated, some unique perspectives of where it’s going to work and add value to your organization. And that’s been a cool juxtaposition of different areas of California where it’s not the Bay Area where there’s legacy manufacturing or older equipment and people are realizing they have to put some additional investment to keep that going. And we can help, I guess, determine what is the right technology that will be a good fit and be reliable for that organization.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
And if anyone wants to reach out and connect with us, even not about business, even just for fun, we’re both on LinkedIn, Liz Brooks-Zak and G Brooks-Zak.

G Brooks-Zak:
We’re always open to make connections and if we can bring value when we can, we’d love to. And you never know when that is going to happen. Just like that was said in our keynote speaker, he had that one little five minute interaction and it came back later. So we try to do that in our own lives to.

 

For more episodes of The Rivergate Marketing Podcast, find us in your favorite podcast app.

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In this episode, Grace Clark sits down with G and Liz Brooks-Zak, co-founders of Outlier Automation, at the 2024 CSIA conference. G and Liz discuss their industry experience and company growth, the importance of knowledge transfer, and the journey of starting their own company, emphasizing shared sacrifices and strong communication.

Grace:
To get us started, if you could both just give me your name, title, and what company you’re with.

G Brooks-Zak:
I’m G Brooks-Zak, I am the co-founder and technical lead at Outlier Automation.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
And I’m Liz Brooks-Zak and I am co-founder and business operations lead at Outlier Automation.

Grace:
Just curious, what size of company are you guys?

G Brooks-Zak:
We are very small. We are five people and we’ve been in business for five years. And I think that we are kind of at this inflection point of growth, which is one of the reasons why we think it’s really important to be here [CSIA Conference], to really put in the right business practices to sustain that growth and ultimately be responsible for sustaining our business for our employees, not just ourselves.

Grace:
That’s something I really like about this conference: you can meet people from really small companies or just massive companies that are the big dogs of the industry. So as kind of a newer company in the industry, relatively, I mean, I’ve been talking to some people who have been in business for 40 years here. What do you guys see is changing about the industry and what are you looking forward to?

G Brooks-Zak:
Well, I think that from a technical perspective overall…well, first of all, no one ever knows what a control systems integrator does, and we already by definition have to touch a lot of aspects of technology and people’s businesses, and that is just growing in complexity and the knowledge of all of these great people that started these companies is as everyone knows, kind of teetering on the brink and needs to be transferred. And there has to be organizations that step in and carry that flame. But as an overall, I think that there’s going to be a lot of knowledge transfer even between companies and also the companies that we serve. And that is really important to be able to, operationally, continually make money using technology.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
And technology is just evolving so fast. I think that the melding of disciplines is going to become really critical. Things are only getting more complicated and you just have to be able to interface with so many different disciplines of engineering. And it’s important to really, to be a successful controls engineer, you have to have experience with so many of these different fields and it’s a challenge, but I see that as something really fun and exciting because you’re doing something new all of the time and there’s always this cool stuff coming out that makes you rethink your approach. How can I do things more efficiently? How can I have better solutions for my customers?

G Brooks-Zak:
I think that one of the roles of a control systems integrator, while it is very complicated, we are the subject matter experts and ultimately, even though it’s complicated, there is always a role to be said like, ‘Hey, this isn’t actually that complicated. Here are the simple aspects of this that are the key takeaways in what we do.’ And that’s really part of the value.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
Yes, that’s right. We’re responsible for doing all that research and being the experts and then distilling down what are the things you can actually use as a customer that are going to be reliable, that are going to be a good fit.

Grace:
You’re from the technical side [G], and you consider the business side [Liz]. Do you feel like you both experience the conference in a different way?

G Brooks-Zak:
That’s a good question. Personally, I actually don’t think so because I don’t see this conference so much as technical. In some aspects there are, there’s the vendor relationships that do give us those technical skill sets or tools I would say, but really it’s about the business aspect and I am still half owner of the company and the key aspects of what we’re doing and their strategies, there’s a technical strategy, but ultimately it’s the business.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
And I think it’s still been very beneficial for us both to be here, even though we’re kind of doing some of the same activities. Because if one person goes to a conference and comes back and is like, I have all these ideas, it’s a different kind of feel in different conversation rather than you both experiencing that and being able to collaborate. It’s more meaningful. And I am looking forward to tomorrow conference day 2]. I think that there’s going to be a more variety of breakout sessions and then we’re going to get to kind of split up. But yesterday I took the marketing track, you [G] did the best practices track, so we’ve been trying to split up where we can and really get the most out of this conference.

Grace:
That’s a really great idea. I mean, it’s great to see a duo like you guys, how you’re taking on the conference. Maybe I’m totally wrong, but I just haven’t seen as many couples taking on the CSIA conference, so that’s really exciting. Since you’ve owned your company for about five years, but you’ve been in the integration business a little bit longer; what led to your decision to start your own company like this? Because like they said in the keynote speaker jokingly, ‘we’re the weirdos, the ones who go and start a business.’ That’s hard.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
Yes, sure. So, we were at points in our careers where we had a combined skill set to be able to, we thought, make a business successful and it really helped having a partner that you trust, whether it’s someone you’re married to or someone you’re not married to, I think it is easier to start a business with someone rather than be all by yourself. But yes G had been working for years in the industry and then I had been working for years also in a technical role, more on the operational marketing side. And so we just had this combined skill set and we’re like, you know what? Let’s just give it a try. And worst case scenario, we go back to what we were doing before, not a lot to lose. And so we just quit our jobs, started our own company, and I was also pregnant at the time we moved across the country, so we kind of did it all together, which was actually kind of nice. It was like this fresh start, this new thing we were creating and we made it work. We’re still here.

G Brooks-Zak:
Yeah, I mean, I think that it’s more like a lifestyle or life decision to have this experience. And I think maybe if you don’t have that mindset, it gets really tough sometimes You have to keep going and it’s like this dedication to this vision or to yourself to keep doing it and make it work. And I think that was some of the pieces of the keynote specifically the “profit first,” where it’s you have this responsibility to keep it going once you go. And if you can’t make it work and make it profitable, it’s like why are you doing this? And I think that’s again, one of the reasons why this organization is so valuable to put those things in place that will make you more likely to succeed.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
I always think, too, that owning your own business, starting your own business, you have so many sacrifices [that] you’ll miss things you don’t want to miss. You’ll miss events, you’ll miss family functions, you’ll be up working late at night, whatever. And I think that for example, if my spouse was doing it and I was not, there would be a lot of resentment there, but I always feel like because we’re in this together, whenever one of us is making a sacrifice, it’s like our whole family is making a sacrifice together. And so that’s kind of the cool part about having a family business in any industry. It’s like everybody is doing it and so nobody feels left out and you’re making sacrifices, but you’re not alone.

G Brooks-Zak:
And I think that’s actually one of the interesting things. I mean, I would imagine in other industries it’s similar, but it seems like in CSIA in particular, there are a lot of really successful companies that they really were their spouses together doing that. And it’s interesting to hear their experiences and almost cathartic of what it’s like, right, with anything. You have to have really good communication and it’s like when you’re doing it with your spouse, it’s like you have to be even better at it. And it’s like you are making each other better because of it.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
That’s pretty cool.

Grace:
Well, it’s been really great to talk to you guys. You have a very unique perspective, at least a new perspective that I haven’t talked about on this podcast before. So, I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to talk with me. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you would want to talk about or maybe just add here towards the end?

Liz Brooks-Zak:
G, do you want to give a little pitch about our company?

G Brooks-Zak:
Sure. Yes. So we’re based in Fresno, California, so that’s central California. And we’re very close to the Bay Area and we do a lot of work in advanced manufacturing with new technologies or technologies that when people haven’t maybe applied automation to or traditional industrial automation. So, that’s given us a lot of cool exposure to how you can think about automation differently. And we do motion control and robotics applications, data integration, things that I just think fall under what people would say is like Industry 4.0. But not every organization is doing all aspects of that. And I think we have, with our experience that we’ve accumulated, some unique perspectives of where it’s going to work and add value to your organization. And that’s been a cool juxtaposition of different areas of California where it’s not the Bay Area where there’s legacy manufacturing or older equipment and people are realizing they have to put some additional investment to keep that going. And we can help, I guess, determine what is the right technology that will be a good fit and be reliable for that organization.

Liz Brooks-Zak:
And if anyone wants to reach out and connect with us, even not about business, even just for fun, we’re both on LinkedIn, Liz Brooks-Zak and G Brooks-Zak.

G Brooks-Zak:
We’re always open to make connections and if we can bring value when we can, we’d love to. And you never know when that is going to happen. Just like that was said in our keynote speaker, he had that one little five minute interaction and it came back later. So we try to do that in our own lives to.

 

For more episodes of The Rivergate Marketing Podcast, find us in your favorite podcast app.