Nicole Clark & Alon Shwartz
Santa Monica-based Trellis has created an AI-powered research and analytics platform to make state court trial data accessible for the first time. Headline led Trellis’ Series A, announced October 2021.
There are plants in every corner: fern and palm varieties erupting out of their pots; thick, leafy vines climb the walls. There's also a Guiana Chestnut — better known by its colloquial name, "money tree" — in their office garden. The tree is the subject of a running joke among the team, explains co-founder and CEO Nicole Clark: it represents growth in good times and is laughingly referred to as the financial backup plan during times of strain.
Together, Alon and Nicole tend to the growth of Trellis, an AI-based state court data analytics platform, with the care of gardeners. Even their own working relationship is the subject of thoughtful cultivation.
We caught up with Nicole and Alon for a stroll around their office neighborhood in Santa Monica to learn more about just what it is that makes their partnership, their business, and of course, their gardens — grow.
Let’s start at the beginning. You two seem like you’ve been friends forever — when did you first hit it off?
Nicole: Actually, my executive coach played matchmaker! She had also been Alon’s employee at one of his prior companies, and thought the two of us should meet. Obviously, she was right!
And the connection was...instant?
Alon: To me, it was immediately obvious. Nicole just has it. She has what it takes to be an incredible CEO. I’m not sure she even fully realizes it yet, but she has it.
Nicole: Alon originally joined me as a technical advisor to the company, but he was adding incredible value from the start, he was actually doing work. Most advisors just opine, which is great assuming they are smart and skilled, but leaves early founders with a lot of great advice and no one to help execute. Alon got his hands dirty immediately. I secretly knew I was recruiting him the entire time he was advising the company...I just kept integrating him more and more into the team and aligning with him on goals and strategy.
Why did it take you time to join as a co-founder?
Alon: Well, my previous company hadn’t ended well. I had promised myself that that was my last startup. Four startups is enough! Being a startup uncle (a.k.a. an advisor) was more appealing at the time — you get to come in and have fun, help the team learn and grow, and then leave all the difficult gut wrenching parts to the parents! But, at the end of the day, I’m a builder — not a consultant.
What strength would you most like to steal from each other?
Alon: Nicole is an outstanding salesperson. I am direct, sometimes abrasive. Nicole is the opposite, extremely poised and disarming. She has the power to get people excited: our team, our customers. People want to join her.
Nicole: Alon has been on every side of the table, CEO, CTO, investor, coach. It's given him the ability to see various perspectives at once, and still prioritize. He is a master translator — he can make incredibly complex technical issues really simple and clear.
Where’s the line between your strengths?
Nicole: I have a million thoughts running at the same time, constantly switching contexts. Alon listens, brings me back to tackle one problem at a time, then actually executes — fixes it, whether it's pushing the team, doing it himself, or in some cases pushing me. Alon is an excellent leader, and excels at driving progress. When he can’t push, he literally pulls us forward. But he gets it done. Every partnership needs that kind of balance.
Alon: I can put this simply: Nicole is like a kite — I’m the string.
The worst VC question of all time?
Nicole: What happens if Google gets into your space? You could say that to any company — large or small, corporation or startup. It’s basically a lazy VC question, it's what investors ask when they have not dug in enough to ask relevant questions, or they simply don’t really understand your market or your business.
Alon: Without a doubt! There’s no answer to that question that will satisfy any investor. If you mention the potential for an acquisition, they get concerned the exit will be too early, too small. To quote Hamilton, "We will fight the fight and win the war.” What else is there to do?
What’s your motto?
Alon: “It’s not who’s going to let me, it’s who’s going to stop me!“ When I was very young, I found myself waiting for permission — I’ve quickly learned that I just need to do what needs to be done, even if the result is not guaranteed.
Nicole: “Life unfolds in proportion to your courage.”
You both have kids — what’s the essential routine, ritual, or question that keeps you grounded at home?
Alon: Tell my kids I love them at least once per day. You can’t say it enough. Yeah, also give them long, strong hugs.
Any brilliant advice for other Founders with families?
Alon: It’s not about quality time, quantity matters. When they grow, no one will remember you being at or missing an event, but the repeated memory of you reading them a book, listening to them telling you about their day, inventing a story, will stay with them. Some of it, I’ve learned later, but it’s never too late.
Nicole: In some ways I think the idea of attaining work life balance (particularly as a founder) is a bit of a trap. That doesn't mean you ignore your family, it means, you should strive to be present wherever you are, at any given moment. And when you find those quiet moments with your family, at the end of the day, or in the morning, be there with them, be connected.
Alon: The first stage has been depleted and now we have this super booster in the second phase of the growth of the company. I told Nicole the other day, our tanks are full of jet fuel and now it's time for us to go and execute in the fastest and most aggressive way that we can —there's so much to do. The path is clear and strategy is sound.
Nicole: Really, this next phase of life is about growth in all ways — Trellis’ growth as a business, our team's growth as professionals, and my personal growth as a leader, a parent, a partner and a human.