Ablorde Ashigbi

Co-Founder and CEO of 4Degrees

Ablorde is the CEO of 4Degrees, a Chicago-based technology company, applying machine intelligence to help teams in relationship-driven industries manage their most important source of opportunity – their professional networks. When he’s not doing that, you can usually find him lifting weights, reading books or eating BBQ.

Where did the idea for 4Degrees come from?

4Degrees comes from two places for myself and my co-founder.

The first was from having spent our careers in relationship driven industries – management consulting and private market investing (Venture Capital and Private Equity). Essentially every part of those industries – client / deal sourcing, helping those companies get access to customers, talent, or relevant expertise – was underpinned by the relationship network we had, and how well we could use it. Despite how core it was to our success, we consistently found ourselves resorting to highly manual, inefficient means to try to organize, search, and utilize our team’s collective network. Generally, we were stuck with some combination of excel spreadsheets, sales CRM systems, and LinkedIn’s diffuse understanding of what a valuable connection was. So we recognized from this that there was a gap in the market for a solution that could serve as a system of record and intelligence for a team’s relationship network – one with much less data entry, and much more intelligence that could be used to maximize that team’s network for gain.

The second was a more fundamental recognition that, even for an individual professional outside of a relationship driven industry, that one of the defining factors determining their professional trajectory was the relationship network they had. I come from a family of immigrants that didn’t have a strong relationship network – and I’ve been able to see how a network can create or limit access to professional opportunity. So in the long run, we’d love to build a product that enables every professional to build and maximize one of their most important professional assets.

We’ve got some work to do to fully realize both visions – there’s enough there to keep us busy for a decade or two!

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My day typically consists of a few categories of tasks:

– Team meetings: these are either as a full group, or with specific subsets of our team working on initiatives. We have a full team meeting 2x per week (covering metrics, key initiatives, customer feedback, and reflection on the week), and then more impromptu meetings as needed to make progress on our goals.
– Sales meetings: I’m currently the only person on our team with sales responsibilities, so I spend a lot of time with prospective customers. I find it incredibly valuable – both to help those customers solve problems, but also to hear first hand what brings them to us, what their issues are, and their reactions to our product.
– Hiring: We’re consistently growing our team, and looking for the best talent to help us do so. So I spend a decent amount of time hunting for talented people, trying to convince them to join us, and talking to them throughout our process.
– Internal communications: We use a variety of tools (Slack, Zoom, Airtable, Google Docs, Notion) to stay in sync collectively throughout the day, and are consistently throwing out ideas / having conversations in direct or group channels.
– Customer support / success: I also help manage our CS operations, which lives in Intercom and email.
– Email: between my sales, customer success, and operations duties – I spend a lot of time in email!

To make my day productive:

– Where I can, I try to batch similar tasks together so I can get in a flow doing a bunch at once. This is especially helpful for meetings, so that I can leave longer blocks of time for other tasks. That said, given my customer facing role, this is often more fantasy than reality.
– I try to lay out 2-3 key goals for the day that are tied to our monthly and annual goals for the business – either the night before, or in the morning. While the most important goal may often shift (an urgent customer need may emerge, for instance), I try to leave enough buffer such that these are achievable even if my day is blown off track
– I try to get as much out of my head as possible – whether into a calendar invite, to-do list, or note.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Most of our ideas as a team come from spending time with customers, with some that come from intuition (having lived the lives that our customers once lived). As a team, we have a strong bias towards action and getting real feedback from users / customers – so if we’ve committed to explore an idea, we move towards either an MVP (for smaller features), or a prototype (for larger ones). To define what should be included in either, we try to work through a specific user flow or use case to understand what the ideal experience would be, then we peel back the parts that feel less essential for a first iteration. From there, we either push to production (if small), or move from design to development. As we release major features, we typically define a success metric to understand if that feature is solving the problem (or generating the engagement) that we’d hoped – which may then generate further iteration.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’m personally very excited about the integration of artificial intelligence into software applications, writ large. With the right motives and design, this wave of intelligent software has the opportunity to unlock large amounts of productivity, reduce manual / repetitive tasks, and help people more rapidly / reliably achieve their objectives.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I put in long hours and am unafraid to outwork the competition. While there’s certainly diminishing returns to effort, I generally believe there’s enough valuable work to be done (writing, reading, testing new things, reaching out to one more person) that accumulating more hours, over time, leads to an advantage that accumulates over time.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Prioritize relationship building. I’ve been lucky in my career to be surrounded by some absolutely phenomenal people – very talented, high integrity, and with so much to offer the world. Many have become my closest friends, professional mentors, and confidants – and I’ve become far more intentional over time in ensuring these relationships stay strong. When I was younger, I was far less intentional about this – and I’m certain I missed out on building relationships with others that could have enriched my life and perspective on the world.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Sandwiches are wack, and most foods would be better in a different format. More seriously (though I do believe that) – the number of people in your professional network is mostly a vanity metric.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Take every opportunity possible to talk to your current and prospective customers. Do sales calls, join case studies, and take shifts doing support. I’m a huge believer that customer insight and feedback should drive almost every aspect of a company – the product you build, how you sell it, how you position it, what channels you use to find new customers – almost everything. Even if your team does an amazing job of recording these conversations and distilling insights – nothing can replace the learning you will get from having those conversations yourself.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Building a relationship with each prospect (or customer), and trying to find ways to help them advance their goals – regardless of if they end up using our product or not. I try to find ways to share knowledge (by writing content, curating resources) and make introductions to others that can help them accomplish their objectives without any expectation of return. That attitude has, funny enough, resulted in return – referrals to connections of theirs that have become customers or hires of ours, advocacy amongst their peers, and counsel that has helped us move more quickly.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Too many to count (already). The ones that tend to stick with me are people related – as each hire impacts the business on a lot of different dimensions (culture, speed, quality, future hiring, etc.). One specific case was making our first sales hire at the time – a great guy who had some success in his prior roles (and will have them in future ones, no doubt), but whose skillset and inclinations weren’t the right match for what we needed at the time. We needed someone with a high activity level and who could be adept at building a book of business throughout outbound efforts – and we confused having been an early sales person at a different company as having had that skillset. We’ve overcome that by being far more precise in role definition and capability assessment for future hires in our go-to-market team.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

SaaS pricing as a service. Pricing tends to be one of the most underoptimized levers to grow a business, and yet is mostly done by gut or heuristic (especially in the early days). Plenty of difficult parts in getting it to work, but done well, it becomes a no-brainer purchase.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A new pair of workout shoes (Nike Metcons). Solid enough to lift without the soles compressing, light and flexible enough to do some (short-distance) running, and low profile enough to easily pack in my backpack if I’m traveling. For me, working out is a keystone habit that makes me perform better at (essentially) everything else – with habits like that (nutrition, learning, and sleep also included), I try to think less about the direct benefit, for two reasons:

– Because the second order effects end up being more powerful than is captured in that equation
– These activities are so frequent (ideally) that even small marginal changes have large absolute impacts in the long run

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

The obvious answer is 4Degrees – I legitimately use the product for multiple hours everyday. Besides that, MixMax – saves me a lot of time in setting up meetings and sharing my availability, inserting common phrases / email text that I use, and reminder email sequences.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Endurance – the story of Edward Shackleton and his attempt to make the first trans-Antarctic voyage. A story of teamwork, sheer will, and perseverance in difficult circumstances, all in equal parts. I see the story as particularly valuable for everyone that’s participating in building something new – which requires all of those same elements.

What is your favorite quote?

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” – Marcus Aurelius. A reminder that my time is finite (so work on things that are important, with urgency), and to take full ownership over my actions, thoughts, and emotions.

Key Learnings:

  • Drive and hard work are compounding advantages
  • Prioritizing relationship building can lead to meaningful growth – in your career trajectory, in your business, and in finding product market fit
  • Spend as much time as you can directly interacting with existing and prospective customers to learn how to improve and grow your business