The new generation of entrepreneurs and thought leaders is a force to be reckoned with. Here to share their Gen Z startup success story is Blake Resnick. Blake is the 22-year-old founder and CEO of BRINC, a company building a new class of drones to keep people safe in dangerous situations. Dr. Santor Nishizaki chats with Blake to talk about the unconventional path that led to his startup business and the major challenges he faced as his company grew from just him to an organization of 80 people. Tune in as the two discuss what characterizes Gen Z in terms of their stand on social issues and preferences when it comes to work. They also touch on topics such as retention, The Great Resignation, and when to adopt a hybrid workplace so stay tuned!
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Leading Within An Organization: A Gen Z’s Start-Up Story With Blake Resnick
Our guest is Blake Resnick. He is the CEO and Founder of Brinc. He started taking college courses at the age of fourteen and then attended Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. Before launching his startup. He worked at McLaren Automotive, Tesla, and DJI Inc. He’s also a member of The Thiel Fellowship class of 2020.
He has an innate ability to define a problem. Imagine a new approach, and create a technology-based solution. His engineering skills include mechanical design, firmware development, electrical design, testing high voltage systems, vacuum systems, composite design, additive manufacturing, and CNC machining.
Brinc designs, manufactures and sells SUAS systems, which is an acronym for a Small Unmanned Aircraft System to law enforcement and defense departments worldwide. His willingness to form collaborative partnerships with public safety officials gave birth to Brinc’s first product, the Lemur. using LiDAR technology, the drone flies indoors with precision and unprecedented agility. Its two-way communication system allows first responders to hear and see through the drone.
Blake is working on the SUAS mesh system designed to respond to 911 calls and gunshot detection within seconds. When not enveloped in product development, he actively engages in talent recruitment, strategy, meeting with executives, and speaking with current and future investors. He negotiated and closed a $2 million seed round and a $25 million Series A funding round, and won the Forbes 30 Under 30 award. Let’s hear what this Gen Z leader has to say.
Thank you so much for joining this show, Blake. I appreciate it.
Thank you for having me.
Tell us a little bit about your story and how you got to where you are because it truly is an incredible story.
I started my engineering career over at McLaren Automotive. I believe I was their youngest ever engineering intern. I started over there when I was fourteen and did get parts deployed on the production of cars. If you ever find yourself under a McLaren 720S, you’ll see some stuff I would know. That was a cool time, especially as a massive Formula 1 nerd, walking by cars driven by Senna every day on my way to lunch was a cool way to start a career. That was a great time.
I then went over to Tesla Motors. I worked on battery technology, controls engineering, and that kind of stuff. I also briefly bumped into Elon. I then worked over a DJI, the world’s largest drone company by far. I was working under their VP of R&D. When I was there, they had an 85% market share. It’s very much like the 800-pound gorilla in the space. I did some cool personal projects in the past too. I built an inertia electrostatic confinement nuclear fusion reactor in my garage, which completely terrified my neighbors, but I had a good time with it. I dropped out of Northwestern to start Brinc. I have been working on that ever since.
Can you tell us a little bit about what Brinc does, what you are doing, and what drives you?
We build technology in the service and public safety. Our first commercial product is called the Lemur drone. It’s basically a tool designed to get eyes and ears to places too dangerous to send a person. Instead of sending a human being into a hazmat situation, a hostage situation, a barricaded suspect situation or a partially collapsed building, you would send our drone and it would be your eyes and ears for you so you don’t have to risk anyone’s life to execute a critical search of a structure.
What an amazing use of technology in helping to save lives.
It’s important work. If you look at some of the past missions we have done, it has proven itself as valuable technology. One of them that we did was we helped with the Champlain Towers collapse in Surfside, Florida outside of Miami. I don’t know if you read a lot about that. What our drones are used for there was roughly a half of the structure immediately collapsed, but the other half was still standing, which was a major hazard. Now you have 101st responders searching through a rubble pile for survivors, but 20 feet from them, you have this actively structurally unstable fourteen-story building. If that were to have come down as well, it would have been a much worse disaster than it already was, which is saying something because it was that.
What our drones were used for was flying underneath the structure in a subterranean parking garage with a structural engineer wearing a VR headset and watching the video stream of the video coming back directly there. That structural engineer was basically telling our pilot, “Go here, look here, look there,” to try to evaluate the structural health of that still standing portion of the building. The data that we collected ended up informing the decision partially to do a controlled demolition on that still standing portion of the structure. It was good work and a good example of how our technology functions in the field.
You’ve accomplished a lot. Your company is growing as I read in the past few years. As a leader, how have you been able to deal with imposter syndrome? I don’t assume you have this too much being at fourteen pretty much doing some engineering work. Do you have imposter syndrome? How do you handle that being such a young CEO?
I will tell you one thing that has helped. For the first couple of years of the company, it was just me. It took a long time for us to get traction initially. When we did start to get traction, it ramped up. It was in a situation where I woke up one day with a big company. It was a gradual escalation. That helped me be a little bit more comfortable in my role. It’s almost like the thing with a frog in bathwater that’s slowly getting warmer until it starts to boil. It doesn’t notice the temperature is changing. I went through something similar. It ramped up gradually enough that the progression felt fairly normal. That’s the honest answer.
That’s all we are looking for here. What type of adversity have you had to overcome pre-pandemic? I wouldn’t say post-pandemic because I don’t know if we are officially done as of this recording. What adversity did you have to deal with and then how did you overcome it?Any level of success is accompanied by a tremendous amount of failure. Click To Tweet
Any level of success is accompanied by a tremendous amount of failure. That was the case for me. I tried to raise money several times before succeeding. I tried at least three times to raise a seed round before I was able to do that. That was tough. It’s also tough to work alone without much progress for traction for years on it. Especially as a solo founder, that was also not super easy. Everything you attempt does not work. You have no one to share the load with. If it doesn’t work, it’s solely your responsibility and fault because who else is there to blame? It’s just you.
It was years of that was and it was hard. Eventually, you learn enough and try enough things and stay motivated towards achieving some of these goals that stuff clicks into place. You start getting a little traction, and then if you do your job right, you can leverage that traction to raise money, get media, get other customers, or make early hires. If you keep engaging with that process, you get to a point eventually where you’ve accomplished a fair amount.
How many employees do you have? Are you okay sharing that?
We are around 80.
Now, this is not you anymore. It’s going from me to we. That can be challenging. What was your first leadership challenge and then how did you solve it as you started to grow your team and scale?
I have had a bunch. Many come to mind. I will tell you a major one. The very first drones that I ever shipped to a customer I built by hand out of my garage. Those were our first products and those worked okay. It is a lot of work to build drones. The very early versions of our product were pretty manual to assemble. They have gotten a lot easier now, but the first ones were hard. I’ve built those and they worked okay.
Realizing how much work that was, I went and hired some manufacturing technicians to continue manufacturing the drones. I trained them up and they were very good also. They did an amazing job, but then we started getting a lot more sales. We have to build a lot more of these systems. It got to a point where the folks I trained were then training new hires on how to build the devices. That was a hard transition because now we are a couple of layers removed from the design intent. We hired a lot of technicians in a batch. It was fifteen people or something. It was a lot.
The quality of the products went down pretty significantly for a couple of months because all of these people came in at one time. They were all trained already by a second-hand source. Not all of our process was in place. We didn’t have any HR. All of these issues ended up compounding. I remember it being a real challenge to have some of those conversations like, “The quality isn’t good enough here. We have to work harder. We have to change how we are manufacturing these things. We need a mindset shift. We have to absorb a bunch more processes in order to make that work.” Also, getting everyone bought into the vision of the company, why their work matters, and why quality is so important because of the low quality, someone could get hurt if the first responder tries to use them in the field. That was a major one.
It sounds like it worked because you have a strong mission of what you do, first responders, fire departments, police and the military. If they don’t do their job right, people could get hurt. Was it a pep speech or did you create an official training or focus on the core values more? How did you implement that?
It was all of that. It started off with conversations about how we have to do better. It’s not just the technicians either. This was also on me and the manufacturing leadership for not building in enough process at the right time. There were people that weren’t set up for success. This is one of the things where people have to be personally accountable and do a good job in their section of the manufacturing process and care about the details, and notice when something isn’t right and then report it or reject parts. All of that is important.
It was also a matter of getting together with the leadership manufacturing team and having some serious conversations about how we better support our employees and put them in a position where they can succeed easily in their roles. All of that was critical. It was training. It was the addition of processes. It was the hard conversations. It was realizing that some of this is on us too and leadership. It was all of that. It became a multi-month process of improvement. It’s still one we are on now. It never stops.
It’s hard too as you are trying to scale. You’ve been bootstrapping it for so long and you are trying to do other things as a founder and CEO. It’s difficult but it’s a great lesson and I love that too of not just putting on the people and making it right like, “We need systems in place.” Everyone wants to do a good job and be set up for success.
You bring a great point there. Manufacturing is an important part of our business, but around the same time, we were also going through fundraising. We are hiring a bunch of people in other elements of the business. We are pushing for sales. We are thinking about marketing, press, and customer support. All of this stuff is on at the same time.You can't take on everything at once. Some things might have to suffer a little bit, so you can resuscitate another part of the company that might actually be dying. Click To Tweet
The way I think about it sometimes is like you are in a forest fire. The fire completely surrounds you and you have a hose with a very narrow aperture. From one end, it’s sales issues, from the other end, it’s personnel problems, from another end, it’s HR, from another end, it’s manufacturing quality, from another end, it’s investors. You have to swivel around and hit different parts of the fire before they get too close to consuming you. It’s what it is.
You have to pick the top few most important problems to focus on, and then accept that there is a lot of other stuff you are not going to be able to handle right now. One of the things I have struggled with most is understanding you can’t take on everything at once. Some things might have to suffer a little bit so you can resuscitate another part of the company that might be dying. Those are stressful situations, but it’s a part of growing a company.
Those hard days and thinking about the impact and the purpose of your company help us get through those tougher times.
You almost need a higher mission because if it was just the money, it wouldn’t be worth it. It’s a real toll to do this thing. Understanding in our case that we are doing it to create jobs and build a generational business, we are also doing this to give first responders who are risking their lives to save lives a tool to keep them safe. It’s very motivating for me and for everyone in the company.
I was so inspired reading your story and what you do. It sounds like it’s such a great organization and a line of business. My next question is you’re Gen Z. I wrote my dissertation on Millennials. I have another book coming out on Gen Z. You are a shining example of Gen Z. What would you say Gen Z’s greatest strength in your generation?
What advice would he give to people who are leading Gen Z and are just entering the workforce? When Millennials came into the workforce so long ago, when I first came in, I’m an elder Millennial. A lot of people weren’t ready for us. I wrote this book coming up about Gen Z to help other generations understand you all. It’s not to say all. There are certain themes that may have shaped the way you grew up. What are your thoughts on that?
We are an incredibly socially conscious generation. All of my peers care deeply about global warming. They care deeply about social justice and social issues. They care a lot about quality. They care a lot about the increasing wealth inequality that we are also seeing. There’s a unique civic-mindedness. That is pretty characteristic. I hope that’s maintained and increases. When more Gen Z folks are getting up into politics and leadership positions in government and in corporate enterprise, those values were going to translate into policy decisions and push us in the right direction as a species.
It makes me feel good too as a generation ahead of you that the world is going to be hopefully better off than when we got there.
I hope so. Coming back from Poland was interesting because you see in some ways the worst and best of humanity. The worst in that is there are a huge number of refugees. It’s clear that a war is nearby, but the best in the form of seeing how much the Polish people were willing to help, support and donate their homes, food, transportation or anything they could do for the Ukrainians. We’ll see, but that was interesting and reminded me of your comment.
It sounds like an impactful experience in addition to all the other stuff you were there for as well. What advice would you give to people who are hiring Gen Z-ers as they are exiting college or a trade school or not even going to college and just hiring them? What advice would you give to that generation?
It’s an interesting crowd. There are things that are valued highly. Remote work is valued highly. It’s huge. A lot of Gen Z folks want to do the work from home thing. They care a lot about pay and compensation. I don’t think they are super willing to not get paid a lot for the promise of future advancement. That’s probably broad across the workforce in this climate but that’s real. They want to work from home. They want solid compensation upfront. They want to feel like they are engaging with a company that is aligned with their value system and that the company is good for the world. That’s important. Those three things are probably a good start, work from home, solid compensation, and working on something that has a positive social good. If you are doing those things, you are pretty well set.
That leads me to my next question, which is the Great Resignation. What do you think is driving that from what you’ve seen? You are hiring people from what you’ve talked about, maybe with other founders or investors. What are your thoughts there?
One thing is that it’s an incredibly employee-friendly climate right now in general. There’s a huge amount of career opportunities everywhere. There’s a huge amount of recruiting activity. The good talent in companies, especially engineers, is blown up by recruiters all the time on their phones. It’s ten times a day in some cases. They are getting reached out to by recruiters.There’s never been a better time to be an employee. Click To Tweet
There’s a huge amount of opportunity. There’s a lot of investment. It contracted a little bit as far as I can tell with the Ukrainian conflict, with inflation and other things, but there’s still a huge amount of capital, a huge amount of opportunity, and constant reach-outs from recruiters. I don’t think there has been a better time in my lifetime to be an employee. Companies have to realize that and spend some real effort on retention if they want to keep their people.
What would that retention look like to keep their folks? You said pay and work from home.
Any work from home is a good start. Working on stuff that matters. Career advancement is another obvious and important one. Folks have to feel like there’s a path for multiple promotions and that this can be a career for them. It’s a lot of the human factor stuff too. They have to like their boss and coworkers. They have to feel respected and valued by the organization. If all of that is in place, people are a lot more willing to stay around.
What you do is so innovative. Do you think hybrid might be a better option or fully remote or in-person? What are your thoughts there?
For us, it depends a lot on the role. Our sales team is entirely remote at this point. Sales are all over the country. We have another big team in the company that does training and demo flights for police and fire departments. They are 20,000 police departments in the United States and many more fire departments. Maybe 40,000 fire departments. We want to meet with all of them physically. It’s 60,000 meetings that we have to do. We need a big team for that.
We have about a dozen people in those types of roles, training people how to use the drones, and then showing them off to prospective customers. That’s another team that’s fully remote, but then we also have the realities of building hardware. We build drones. We don’t outsource our manufacturing. We do it ourselves. For that work, it has to be an in-house thing. It has to be an office. In the factory, in that case.
What we find as well for engineers is it’s largely similar because they need access to the hardware. They need access to a CNC mill, laser cutter or to a technician that can do a quick soldering job on a board or to a flight cage so they can fly a new firmware version that they wrote a flight control code on an actual Brinc Lemur in the air. Enough of these things happen where the teams have to mostly be in the office. It depends on the role for us. Whenever we can, remote is totally workable, but there are cases due to the nature of us building a physical and highly complex technology product that people have to be in the office to get access to the equipment they need.
That makes complete sense. It’s all about what the job is. If you could work remote, cool. Do you feel like you do gain something, whatever that may be when you see them in person? Do you have all-hands or these types of company-wide meetings where you all meet maybe quarterly or something like that?
A hundred percent. For sales, there are a lot of opportunities to do that with trade shows. One thing we have been doing a lot of is we have been going to trade shows in the United States and internationally, and bringing very good if not all of the team along.
You have all hands at a trade show or a conference. Why does it have to be in the home office?
We are going to do a leadership trip too. It’s probably time to do that.
A retreat or something like that.
We have onboarded more people. I’m not sure everyone has met everyone else in person yet. It’s to build that connective tissue between human beings that is only formed through in-person interactions. It’s super important.Be really intentional with your goals and understand what you want and what you’re optimizing for. Click To Tweet
One of my last questions is what piece of advice would you give to someone who is just graduating college or entering the workforce now?
It’s so hard to give generalized advice because I went down the weird unconventional path. One thing I would encourage people to do is to be intentional with their goals and understand what they want and what they are optimizing for. A decent number of people, including smart people, never think that deeply about what they care about.
If that’s building a family and making enough money to live a solid middle-class life, that’s awesome. It’s a great thing to optimize around, but you should be intentional when deciding that that’s the path you want to take. If you want to travel the world and see as much of the planet as you can, that would lead to a different set of steps than that first option.
If you want to maximize positive public impact and the good you can do for the world, that would lead to a different set of actions. If you want to become wealthy, that would lead to yet another set of actions. Thinking deeply about the path you want to go down is important, and makes a lot of future decision-making that you’ll have to make a little bit easier and more intuitive to get through.
Did you do that earlier because you said your first job was at fourteen, which is incredible? I’m thinking, “When I was fourteen, I worked at Blockbuster when I was in high school.” You don’t remember Blockbuster.
I love Blockbuster. That was awesome.
The nights and Friday nights going into the video store.
I totally miss it. The whole routine or the ritual even of finding the VHS tape you wanted and looking through all the movie posters and buying candy in the checkout line was sick. It’s unfortunate that the kids growing up now won’t be able to experience that.
They say, “Where’s my Netflix?” I have a son who is seven. He’s like, “Can we just Uber? Why there are commercials when we are on travel?” because everything is ad-free.
Thinking about it, I think the candy was the differentiator. Netflix is not delivering you Swedish Fish and popcorn. It’s not happening. They could figure that out. That would be a game-changer.
Thank you so much for joining, Blake. I’m excited to see you. I will be rooting for you, your organization, and all the great work that you are going to be doing. Please feel free to keep in touch.
Thank you for having me.
Thank you so much. Have a great day.
- Blake Resnick
About Blake Resnick
Blake Resnick is the founder and CEO of BRINC, a fast-growing startup working to build technology in the service of public safety.
Blake has had a knack for science and technology for as long as he can remember. From a young age he developed a habit for taking apart and reassembling household appliances and at the age of 14, Blake built a fusion reactor in his garage.
Blake also started taking college classes at 14 years old. He continued on to Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, but dropped out to build his startup. After internships at McLaren Automotive, Tesla Motors, and DJI Inc. Blake Resnick founded BRINC in 2017. In 2020, he was awarded a Thiel Fellowship and in 2022 Forbes included him in their 30 Under 30 list.