Erik Pavia lived in a double-wide trailer in Canutillo until he was 9, when his family was able to afford a house. He worked summers with his dad, who was a pipe welder. In short, Pavia says he had a stereotypical El Paso upbringing.
“Growing up I saw tech and startups as something that other people did. Changing that mindset is very powerful,” says Pavia, who later graduated with a law degree from Stanford University and now works at a tech startup in California.
The 27-year-old recently sold his apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area and has leased an office at the Cardwell Collaborative, a $29-million biomedical research building that opened in June in South Central El Paso.
Growing up, he says he had the same attitude many of his schoolmates did: I’m just a kid from El Paso.
Looking back, Pavia has a different perspective. Success in the startup world heavily depends on the quality of the people, he says. And many of the qualities that make for successful entrepreneurs are also the qualities of many in El Paso – initiative, resiliency, self-reliance, humility.
Pavia graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a degree in business and used the university’s Law School Preparation Institute as a springboard to get into Stanford University, where he graduated with his law degree in 2013.
But instead of beginning a career as a lawyer, he took a risky, low-paying job at a startup called Knotch. The company, which has developed a product that measures the impact of digital marketing, recently landed $10 million in Series A funding.
Last year, Pavia returned to his alma mater to teach a business law course.
He sat down with El Paso Inc. at the Cardwell Collaborative and talked about why he is bullish on El Paso, what startup businesses need to thrive, why people are the key and what El Paso has to do with Luke Skywalker’s home planet.
Q: Why did you leave your apartment in Silicon Valley and open an office in El Paso?
I travel a lot, and I was spending little time in my apartment and paying a lot for it.
But it isn’t just to save money; there are other places I could live cheap or free. I’m here because it’s grounding. El Paso really brings me back to earth and helps me focus on the things that are important to me. It’s one of the reasons I’m teaching at UTEP – to come back and interact with younger students from the area.
I don’t need the desk here at the Cardwell Collaborative, but being in this environment is really important. It’s great to be around other people working in the industry. It provides more opportunities for random lucky encounters.
Q: The Cardwell Collaborative is at the center of a long-term effort to nurture a tech economy in El Paso. Do you think this region has potential?
The most important driver for a tech economy is the people. And I think the city has changed in a way that will draw and create more people who can work in tech.
El Paso shouldn’t try to be Silicon Valley. I’m not saying El Paso shouldn’t have a tech ecosystem, but it is very different from Silicon Valley.
There are different things here that the city can take advantage of, such as being on the border across from Juárez where there are a lot of resources for manufacturing. That’s something that Silicon Valley doesn’t have.
Q: Why are people the most important?
To start a company, you need capital, service providers, people and ideas. Capital and service providers are pretty liquid; you can wire money, and you can get an out-of-town lawyer.
What’s not liquid are people. Sure, you can try to strike up a conversation with someone in another part of the country, but the best way to make a connection with a person is in person.
Q: Then is there anything about the culture and environment in El Paso that might produce the right personal qualities?
One thing that is valuable here is most people are first generation something – first generation American, first generation college graduate, first generation English speaker. People here are used to doing something new. To be comfortable in the unknown is valuable for startups and entrepreneurship.
Silicon Valley gets a lot of flak for people being out of touch with reality. There are a lot of people who are smart technically but don’t have a good grasp of the problems that need to be solved. Growing up in El Paso, because it is tough to grow up here, you also have a really close connection to the challenges that the average person faces.
People here also tend to be humble, which is important. There is all sorts of work at a startup; I took out the trash. Everybody at our company does some of the dirty work.
In a way, it also helps that expectations are often low. It’s freeing. My parents didn’t care what job I got after I graduated. There was no pressure to get a prestigious position. I could forgo a job at a law firm for a low-paying, risky job at a startup.
Q: How attractive is El Paso to talented young people?
There are certain stereotypes about what people wearing black V-necks and big Ray Bans like – we’re going to go to Whole Foods and drink single-origin coffee and go to yoga.
There’s some truth to that, but there are base needs that are still important to people, such as safety, affordability and jobs. Young people like me are going to cities because that is where the jobs are.
Q: And I imagine if you had to find a job in your field in the El Paso area, it might be difficult.
Exactly. If I had to try to find a job here, I would have a very hard time. But that is not just an El Paso issue.
One thing I try to teach my students is you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley or New York to start a company. There are challenges not being in those areas – if you want to raise money, it’s a lot easier to do that in Silicon Valley – but there are a lot of things you can do anywhere.
El Paso has a lot of the pieces you see in tech ecosystems. The universities here are graduating more and more people with technical degrees. It’s a huge step in the right direction.
What the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation is doing to promote the idea of a tech economy is very important.
Q: What was it like for you growing up in El Paso?
It sounds lame – looking back on it is a lot different – but one thing about growing up in El Paso is I didn’t have a sense of connection to other parts of the country. Besides Juárez, the closest big city is Phoenix or Tucson.
I always like to joke that growing up here was like being Luke Skywalker on Tatooine: You’re out in the middle of nowhere and have no idea what is going on in the greater universe. There’s this weird disconnectedness.
Q: How did you make it to Stanford?
I was lucky. When I was in high school, I had no idea what I was doing when I was applying to colleges. My parents never went, so they couldn’t tell me. I was also lazy. None of my other friends were doing it, so I wasn’t doing it either. I applied to three colleges and ended up going to UTEP.
I was interested in going to law school, so I applied for UTEP’s Law School Preparation Institute. That program is amazing. There were four of us in the program from Canutillo that made it into good law schools the year that I graduated.
Q: Going to Stanford, was it a difficult transition?
What blew my mind the most at Stanford was being in an environment where going out and doing something incredible is very normal and almost expected. Driving to Stanford from the airport, we passed Intel, eBay, PayPal, Facebook, HP – all these offices. It became real. I had known one professional growing up, and I didn’t have a sense that these companies were operated by regular people.
Q: How did you end up at Knotch?
I volunteered with a nonprofit that was created to support entrepreneurs coming out of Stanford, called StartX. I probably spent more time there than law school my last year.
One of the companies I met there was Knotch. At the time, the founders were building a social network, and I thought it was pretty cool. I made myself useful to them, and they offered me a job.
For the first couple of years, whatever wasn’t selling or engineering was my job – so legal, finances, HR, office management, taking out the trash.
Q: What does Knotch do now?
We developed an ad analytics product. We help advertisers measure how effective their branded content campaigns are, and we are hoping to expand into other areas of research.
Q: Do you have any advice for those who might want to go to law school or brave the startup world?
I’m trying to think of the big ones.
It’s important to be able to ask for help. That’s one thing I was raised not to do. I don’t know if it is a cultural thing here or not, but I had this sense that you are supposed to be self-sufficient and not ask for favors.
That’s very valuable, but it’s also important to find people who know what they are doing and seek their advice.
If you don’t have to go through the headache of figuring something out by yourself and somebody can guide you instead, that frees you up to focus on other things. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
It’s also important not to view the upbringing you had in El Paso as a negative and to focus instead on the positive attributes.
Rather than saying it’s ugly, dusty and hot, you can say that growing up here gives you a thicker skin and makes you a little bit tougher than others.