Advice from the Founders Forum

Falling in love with a vision of how you want the world to be: From day 1 to Series A | Mariel Reed, CEO of Pavilion

Maggie Bolt
Mar 1, 2023
min read

Pavilion is a search-based marketplace for state and local purchasing, a $2T a year industry that is (mostly) offline. Thousands of public sector buyers use Pavilion each month to find and buy from suppliers that have been qualified by other public entities, shortening procurement cycles and reducing the costs of selling to the public sector for businesses.

We sat down with Co-founder and CEO, Mariel Reed to talk about how her founder experience has changed from the early days as a founder, to now managing a team of over 30 people, and any tips she has for fellow founders. Watch the full interview here.

Can you Introduce yourself and what Pavilion is doing?

Pavilion is constructing a marketplace for state and local public purchasing, a $2 trillion-a-year industry that is heavily reliant on technology from the 1990s. I believe there is a great opportunity to improve the experience of those in the public sector who are wanting to make purchases on behalf of our communities but are still dependent on rather old-school tech emails, phone calls, and one-time visits to websites. And the inspiration for Pavilion came from my own personal experience. I had come from a background in philanthropy and technology, and then I made a hard shift into government because I wanted to do something that had a bigger social impact. And, while working for the city and county of San Francisco, I recognized an opportunity to transform not only how the city and county of San Francisco make decisions. The city and county governments make purchases, but all state and municipal governments in the United States do as well. And I felt like if I could just help improve the procurement and purchasing processes, that would be a really awesome way to spend my time on the planet in terms of positive upside, both in terms of building a really large company and the financial upside, but also, more importantly for me personally, the opportunity to actually impact human lives at scale.

What was the time in your life that you decided, that this is the time to build and launch this? What was that defining moment for you?

I left government with a strong desire to work in public procurement. As I have stated, people like me who work in the public sector deploy $2 trillion in public dollars across the country each year. And yet, how we spend our money is far removed from our experience as private consumers, right? We can use our phones to order groceries, hire a babysitter, or hail a cab. However, public workers sit in government offices, attempting to deploy millions, tens of millions, or more in public cash. They're calling and emailing each other to figure out how to accomplish it. So I had this experience where I thought, "Man, there's a vision of how that behavior should work." This feeling of public sector work is crucial. It definitely deserves better tools. And I got sucked into it, and I enjoy this vision of how the world would look, especially how government services would look and feel for individuals who rely on them. And it was kind of this confusing time where I thought, "how do I actually be a part of bringing that future into being?"  So I'd say I spent maybe over a year learning more about the landscape and figuring out who was already working on different aspects of the problem. 

And once I saw there was a gap in the industry, I realized, wow, there's a lot of technology going into helping people create new contracts onboard, new vendors, but there was this massive gap around what do we do with the work that's already been done.  For example, how can we assist public servants in sharing? And, rather than starting from scratch, how can we assist governments in leveraging the work that has already been done and is available by other public entities? So, when I found out about it, it was incredibly exciting.

I still wasn't sure what the best mechanism for impact would be. So I looked at where to actually build this within government. I had come from working in the public sector and I've experienced the kind of power of scale that that government can have. But I was pretty convinced that in order to build a technology solution and recruit very quickly the kinds of people – technical talent in particular – that I needed to work with, I needed to start a company. 

I also saw this opportunity where public sector entities really benefit when folks are able to collaborate. But no one entity is really incentivized to create the technical infrastructure to be able to work with other governments. And my experience coming from within the city and county, of San Francisco had been that it's awesome to get other governments to work together. But for long-term sustainability of those kinds of programs, most often they need to spin out and take on a life of their own.

So after surveying the landscape and identifying this gap, seeing that no one was filling that need, I had the conviction that this is a technical solution. In order to achieve the kind of scale at the kind of speed that I was hoping, we needed to do it outside of government and in a venture-backed way. 

The third piece was that the market is so huge. In my own experience and working across philanthropic endeavors and in government, there are plenty of really interesting social impact opportunities that just don't have a market opportunity. At a high level, it's really hard to make money from people who don't have a lot of money. But in this case, this is a unique intersection in public procurement of a massive amount of commercial activity that happens every year, and social impact upside. I got really excited about how we go after that opportunity really quickly in a tech-enabled and tech-first way so that it achieves the kind of scale that is possible looking at the market size. That set me on a course.

I understand that you started your company during the COVID pandemic. In a time when a lot of people were slowing down or maybe stopping their operations, you were actually doubling down. What was that experience like and how might have that affected what you thought a founder's experience might have been like?

I still remember the day our first two engineers were going to start. We had planned to work in the office but had to switch to working remotely. I remember the weekend before we made the call to start working from home, thinking, 'Oh, it'll just be temporary, maybe a couple of weeks and then we'll be back'. I had to pile monitors into my car and a couple of bags of homemade cookies to welcome the engineers and be like, 'Sorry, this is a little chaotic, but welcome and so excited that you're here'. Fast forward a year and two years later, we had continued to grow throughout the pandemic and I had also become a parent during that time. It was a time of incredible learning and resilience. We stayed grounded in the impact we were able to deliver and felt our work was connected to COVID response. We helped State and a lot of local governments respond and navigate the wild West of buying PPE and serve their communities in a new and unprecedented way. It was mentally helpful to have a way of feeling like we were participating and helping. 

As the business grew, other aspects of life felt chaotic, but we had a connection to something bigger than ourselves. We kept a pulse on whether or not folks wanted to come back into the office. My Co-founder and I really enjoy being able to meet in person and our team is really collaborative, so we enjoyed getting to spend time in person. Towards the end of the pandemic, the team was excited to have a physical office space and a hybrid work environment. We now have over 30 members on the team and typically are in the office downtown two or three days a week. It's been a really nice balance of getting to see people and work super collaboratively, brainstorm, exchange ideas, and get to know each other better, but also having dedicated work time and space, flexibility, and schedule. I certainly appreciate that now as a parent.

That flexibility of the hybrid workforce really resonated with a lot of people in those early days. When you were having to navigate the COVID situation, how might have that affected how you were proving your product to the market at a time when maybe some people might not have been listening?

​​Yeah, so I think in many ways, COVID was incredibly beneficial to the public procurement industry. It brought the importance of procurement into the spotlight, as it became increasingly clear how vital it was in getting the equipment needed to keep people safe. It also helped to elevate procurement's role from just a back office compliance function to something more strategic. It highlighted the need to consider what was being bought, from whom, and the quality of the goods purchased, as well as the reputations of suppliers. 

COVID also provided a unique opportunity for our team, as public servants suddenly had to become accustomed to using technology and participating in remote work, when this group of people was typically harder to reach online. This made it much easier to connect with them and get quick feedback on the challenges they were facing and how our products could help. Furthermore, the influx of federal funding helped to provide more resources and support for public procurement. COVID definitely had its challenges, but it also provided plenty of tailwinds for the industry, which our business was able to take advantage of.

You raised your Series A about a year ago. Now, if you can reflect back to those early days, how has your role as a founder evolved from you and your co-founder to now with a larger team?

Yeah, it's funny, actually. I remember when I was going through the program, Bob Tinker came and was talking to us about the journey of being a founder and a CEO, and I remember him sharing this mental model: in the very beginning, you're kind of wandering in the woods. Then you have this ‘Braveheart’ sense where you as a leader are in the front, your troops are behind you, but you're all fighting the battles together. Then eventually when you get big, it's more the CEO in the war room. You're there with your generals, but you're far from the battle. 

And while the transition has not been that extreme, I definitely have been grateful. One of the most fun things about founding a company and being a first-time founder is that the learning curve is so steep and the needs of the business and the demands really on you as CEO. Being able to respond, learn really quickly, and also acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake has been so valuable. 

I think one of the big transitions has been spending my time hiring people who are better than me in a range of disciplines. It has been so great to build a team of incredibly knowledgeable and competent people and then setting them loose on the problem. An important effort I make is to think through the strategy, communication, and the 'why' of the business, and how all the different workstreams fit together to create a structure that everyone can comprehend and focus on the problems they are solving, while also understanding how the work they do fits into the bigger picture of achieving our vision of enabling positive impact for millions of Americans by making government procurement better. This has required me to be better at communicating the 'why', the strategy, and making sure the strategic direction makes sense, and I have enjoyed the feedback from my team.

Is there something that sticks out in your mind as the most rewarding part of your entire journey?

Oh man, I feel like I talked to someone the other day, and they were like, "You seem like you're doing a lot. Aren't you just really tired?" And I was like, "Actually, no, because I'm so energized by the work we're doing." It's like this transition of early days, where it feels so impossible and you feel so crazy. You're sort of begging people to believe you and you find a few people that are like, 'Okay, this sounds crazy, but I'm interested.' And that feels great. Now, it's the fun phase, where there's traction and it's starting to happen. You're really positioned to succeed, of course, there's still a ton to figure out, but it just feels way more existentially secure. It's like, 'Hey, there's a place for this, there's a need for this in the world.' We've made it to the first milestone and there's still a long way to go, but the vision that felt kind of insane at the beginning is becoming more and more inevitable, and others can see that too. That's incredibly energizing. Also, it's been my dream to combine large-scale opportunities in social impact with getting to build at the speed of technology and the startup environment. Combining the best of both worlds in this venture has been incredibly rewarding and exciting.

What piece of advice would you give to first-time founders or prospective founders in their early days?

1. Being a founder is hard. Falling in love with a vision of how you want the world to be, and becoming obsessed with that problem was really helpful for me. This is an important step in order to get through the rejection and naysaying that often comes with business building. 

2. Trusting your own expertise: Believe in the knowledge and expertise that you have developed and don't be intimidated by what other people say. One of the things I've loved in partnering with our series A Investors at Foreigner is that they love to invest in folks that are experts in a particular consumer segment. They see the value in the experience that I bring to the table, which has made it a great partnership. Trust what you’ve learned, and your domain knowledge as someone who has lived and breathed this problem. Own that.

3. People matter: Be intentional about who you work with and the culture that you build. Be choosy about who you work with. Even if it feels like a waste of time, it will have an outsized effect on the team and organization. Every person you hire will have an impact on what its like to show up to work every day, the future people you hire, and the overall values of the organization. It's a great use of time. And I would say I spend probably half of my time these days on people-related stuff. And it's not a bad use of time.

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