…First is to control the controllable. Of course, there are a lot of elements and outcomes that you cannot control. You can’t fully control how the markets are going to react to your solutions, but what you can control is the amount of effort and energy you put into what matters. For example, you have control over how you prioritize your time and how you treat the teams that you construct and build.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ablorde Ashigbi.
Ablorde Ashigbi 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.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
The inspiration for 4Degrees comes from the backgrounds of myself and my co-founder. Prior to founding the company, we worked in a few different industries that are heavily relationship-driven. We had come to realize the role successful relationship networks play in helping early stage companies make it to the next stage of their development and how ineffective manual and transactional focused systems are in facilitating that. Based on our experience and feedback from our prospective customers, my co-founder and I took the leap and started 4Degrees. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the challenges that our customers face in managing and driving value from their relationship network and how to best answer our customers’ needs.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Successful businesses are built on strong long-term relationships. For many businesses, especially the ones in service industries, an effective relationship network is their most valuable asset. It helps them acquire new clients, hire great talent and attract potential partners. And that’s what 4Degress is all about — we provide tools to help people manage and maximize their relationship networks, leveraging technologies such as AI and machine learning. In today’s digital world, many transactional processes are being taken over by machine learning and other technologies. But if you think about it, the place where humans can continue to differentiate themselves is in building relationships and how we relate to one another. A product like ours enables people to strengthen and engage with their relationship network to generate long-term value. We’ve helped customers across various sectors successfully turn valuable relationships into business opportunities.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on in my entrepreneurship journey, my co-founder and I also provided mentorship to other entrepreneurs and small business owners. I recall one time, the 4Degrees team received some desserts in the mail, and I got two different names mixed up and thought they came from one of our prospective clients. We sent this really nice thank you note, but the client said, “I have no idea what you are talking about!” We then realized that the desserts came from one of our mentees. We had a good laugh about that incident and if there’s one valuable lesson I learned from that, it’s the importance of sleep!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I feel lucky to have a really broad network of people who I consider as mentors. One person that comes to mind is the former managing director of the Techstars program, Logan LaHive. He was incredibly honest and forthright, not only about his own experiences, but also in terms of how to help us grow and become a better company. I remember there was a situation where an organization that he was close to was going to use a somewhat competitive product to ours, and Logan wrote the staunchest email defending us. He shared with the organization what we could bring to the table, his experiences working with us directly and how much he believed that we were the right solution for the organization. Logan arranged someone from the organization to meet with us every month so that they could have a deeper understanding of our product and services, and they ultimately ended up becoming our customer. And so, I credit that as one of the many different examples where Logan has made an impact.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I think disrupting is primarily just changing the status quo. Sometimes, a change in the status quo can be positive and positive for almost every market participant. There are cases where that change can lead to, at the very least, a transitional period where things are rough for specific groups of people, and in some that are longer than transitional periods. So for instance, I think there is rightfully a very strong debate happening right now about the gig economy. On the one hand, the gig economy enables a level of flexibility and new forms of cultural work for a worker that historically was harder to come by for a significantly better user experience for the consumer. On the other side of that is that those kinds of platforms can also potentially lead to exploitation of this worker as well. I think of that as an example where the disruption isn’t obviously all positive. I think there are plenty of other circumstances that look like that. So for instance, the improvements of products like Palantir’s capabilities to enable stronger government security and enhance national defense practices, is great. But if you’re a staunch believer in privacy, there is naturally another side to this equation.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
First is to control the controllable. Of course, there are a lot of elements and outcomes that you cannot control. You can’t fully control how the markets are going to react to your solutions, but what you can control is the amount of effort and energy you put into what matters. For example, you have control over how you prioritize your time and how you treat the teams that you construct and build.
Second is to not major in the minors. This is related to prioritization. So, with an early-stage startup, there’s always hundreds of fires and it’s your job to understand which fires deserve your immediate attention — something I try to push myself to re-examine and re-evaluate as the day goes on. For example, I have a personal practice every day of laying out what I think my top two or three objectives are for that day and trying really hard working against those. It’s important to major in the right stuff versus allowing the minors to consume the entirety of your time.
The last one is the teams you build is the company you build. And for an early startup, that’s probably as true as it gets because on day one, there is no product. There is in theory a market, but really it’s just you and the people who surround you in the beginning stages of your journey. And with the right people, you are able to find the right idea, build the right products and operate your business well. So many facets are ultimately dictated by people. I take that to heart; I see recruiting, onboarding and team-building as the most important activity that I do.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Creating 4Degrees is our hope to bring some positive changes to the relationship driven industries and help people and businesses build valuable long-term relationships from the ground up. As I said before, relationships are irreplaceable by emerging technologies, people are constantly engaging with each other and seeking out others to build meaningful relationships — whether the goal is to attract potential customers and investors or to expand a professional network, successful long-term relationships open up a lot more opportunities for people. At 4Degrees, we work to help people achieve this with a human-focused and technology-powered approach, and that’s the main thing that sets us apart from many other companies that are in the same industry. By gathering communications data from emails and calendars and leveraging AI and machine learning, the tools we provide can track and analyze the connections your team is making through a dynamic fashion. It also provides insights and actions that your team can take to build new relationships over time and/or maintain existing ones.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
A book that I would pick is called “Team of Rivals.” It’s a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Two things about this book that really speak to me. The first is the level of work ethic that he has. He is someone who worked incredibly hard to become one of the most celebrated presidents in history. The second is, even as he rose, he held a very strong moral compass and treated other people well. In addition to that, he was able to build the best possible team for the job regardless of prior confrontations he had with his cabinet. Because in his cabinet, there were a lot of people who were his political rivals and people who tried to take him down. But fundamentally, he recognized that they were the best candidates. And in the way that he operated and engaged with them, he essentially won them over and built the best possible team.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think one quote that resonates with me, which I also shared for the three best words of advice, is not majoring in the minors. This means focusing on the things that truly matter. It’s easy to get caught up in the little things that end up consuming a lot of your time. They can also distract you from seeing the bigger picture, whether that’s the mission of your business or your personal goals.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
For me, it would be something about approaching equalizing access to opportunity. There are a lot of incredibly talented people who aren’t able to achieve their full potential because of their background, life experiences or limited network relationships. And I think that is not only a direct loss to them personally, it’s also a massive loss to the society overall. So if I could change something, or I could inspire movements around something, it would probably be around creating equal access to opportunities for people — And I’m sort of doing it, right? By creating 4Degrees, we want to give people a platform for them get a step closer to the opportunities that otherwise would not have come their way. This is what 4Degrees is all about!
How can our readers follow you online?