An Interview with Ablorde Ashigbi, Co-Founder of 4Degrees

Founder Visibility is an interview series that highlights founders that inspire us and shares how they found their firsts: co-founder, customer, capital, and confidence.

Ablorde Ashigbi is the Co-Founder of 4Degrees; an AI-powered relationship intelligence CRM built for deal-driven industries. Having pivoted from consulting to the startup world, Ablorde shares his best practices and his true motivation behind starting 4Degrees. Read on to learn more about Ablorde’s journey and the rise of his company.

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The most common reason startups don’t work is that the co-founding team breaks up. You want to find someone who has the same set of values as you, someone who is going to put the same amount of effort as you, and someone who has a skillset that is complementary to your own. I was lucky to find all of those things.
— Ablorde Ashigbi, Co-Founder of 4Degrees

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m Ablorde Ashigbi, Co-Founder of 4Degrees. I moved to the US when I was a kid — son of two West-African immigrants — and I bounced around a lot. I lived in New York, Ohio, and then eventually Texas, where my family lives today. I did middle and high school in Texas, and then I went to Harvard for undergrad, where I studied Economics and Political Science. I went to college thinking I was going to become a lawyer because I thought that the way you make a change in the world is through politics, and to get into politics, you have to be good at law. So that was my intuition at the time.

Then I quickly realized during an internship I did my sophomore year that I personally found the work of being a lawyer very boring, and I didn’t want to spend my time that way. But I did appreciate their logical problem-solving approach, which led me to figure out how I can use that same skill set but in a domain that I found more interesting. So I worked at Bain and Company for my first few years out of college at the Los Angeles office. I learned many different industries but ultimately recognized that I wasn’t all that excited about working with Fortune 500 companies, which then brought me to the startup world.

I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to work at a family office here in Chicago for about three years. We were investing in early-stage technology companies and working with them to help them lock the next phase of their growth. My co-founder and I met at the family office and launched the business about three and a half years ago. And the rest is history.

It’s super cool to hear the different industry paths you took from law to consultancy and how that manifested into 4Degrees.

Yeah, it’s been a fun ride. Definitely one of those where you can connect all the dots looking backward, but at the time, it didn’t feel like it was that linear of a story.

What was the process of searching for a co-founder, and what were you looking for in your co-founder?

For me, looking for a co-founder was a function of a few things. The first is finding someone who I genuinely saw as a person I’d want to work with for a decade, if not longer.

The most common reason startups don’t work is that the co-founding team breaks up. You want to find someone who has the same set of values as you, someone who is going to put the same amount of effort as you, and someone who has a skillset that is complementary to your own. I was lucky to find all of those things.

My co-founder and I worked with each other for the prior two years before starting 4Degrees, so both of us understood how well we work together and our values and ways that we could complement one another.

Our business has a fairly robust machine learning and artificial intelligence component. I myself am not a data scientist or a machine learning engineer. While I had some familiarity with that technology from working in the investment world, my co-founder had both of those skills, which made him an ideal fit for building this specific business together.

In terms of where the idea came from, I’d say it’s one of those ideas that has been percolating in the back of my mind — and actually my co-founder’s mind as well — for multiple years. But that crystallized right around the time we decided to make the leap together.

Having directly built Excel spreadsheets and spending my Saturday afternoons trying to organize data for some of the relationship-centric businesses I worked with, we had been offered firsthand insight into how meaningful and widespread the problem was. And all of that led to the realization that there was an opportunity to build something like 4Degrees. We tried to spend a bunch of time validating that by talking to people we saw as prospective customers, both through one-on-one conversations and in more scaled formats. I have also been trying to get prototypes out the door to see how people engage with them.

At what point did you realize you were done making spreadsheets and that you needed to move on to building 4Degrees?

It was more of this accumulating realization that this problem hadn’t been solved yet, despite being in a domain where companies and technologies are doing far more advanced things across so many other robust industries. And it particularly hadn’t been solved in a way that could be beneficial not just to the world we operate in but also to a bunch of others — which was honestly quite surprising.

What were some of the challenges you faced at your earliest points within your startup journey?

I feel like every business has plenty of ups and downs along the way. For us, some of the early challenges were centered around constructing the right team. David and I, as I mentioned, are complementary in a bunch of ways; however, neither one of us was a designer. A product like ours is predicated on helping people take advantage of the network they have. In that case, it was crucial for us to design it in a way that feels comfortable for people to insert one of their most prized possessions — their relationships — into a system and then use this system to build into their workflows and lives.

While we certainly understood who the user and the customer were, we weren’t the skilled designers that could bring that idea to life. Finding a designer that could do the job well and get up to speed on the industry and the customer was a major challenge. It took a lot of interviews, a few false starts along the way, but ultimately we ended up with some really great folks in that domain. The first couple hires didn’t work out, and letting them go was a challenge, too, as I never had to deal with that in my prior roles.

Another challenge was getting people to see the vision. Getting people to see the path of building something enduring and revenue-generating was something we had to work on and learn to do. So there were certainly some challenges along the way.

The third challenge was going through iterations of any product. The very first idea that you have in your head is multiple iterations away from the thing that actually sticks and ends up working. Continuing through that momentum and learning from the mistakes you make along the way to land on the final version of the right product was also another early challenge.

How did you go about sourcing and evaluating valuable talent for your team?

What’s particularly challenging about hiring in the very early days, especially when hiring for a new function, is if you yourself don’t have the skills for what you’re looking for. Evaluating people who have those skills becomes a lot more difficult. So, going off the design example, even though David and I could have conversations with people and view what we thought “good design” was, we weren’t actually designers, so that was a different game entirely.

In terms of sourcing candidates, we did all the standard things. We posted on our own website, AngelList, and some of the local job boards. We also mined a lot of our own relationships and connections within our network. So unsurprisingly, for a relationship-oriented company, we leaned heavily on the people we knew, trying to help identify really talented designers who might be interested in jumping in at the very early stages of a business.

We also looked at local communities and online communities, like Slack groups. That’s how we tried to get in front of more folks, as well as conducting a bunch of direct outbound.

It’s beneficial to leverage your network, as you mentioned, to ensure you’re finding the best hires. And it’s a privilege to have access to various talent because some individuals don’t necessarily have the social capital or network to take their idea from zero to one.

Yeah, to your point, capital comes in so many different forms. And we were wise to have access to a good chunk of it. I’d argue human capital was a place where we were short in the early days, but we were lucky to have a good amount of lead on social capital.

How did you find your first customer, and how did you work with them?

We spend a lot of time trying to get in front of the people who we thought could be customers and make sure we’re iterating to get to a good outcome with them. The way we got in front of our very first customer was actually by going through the Techstars accelerator here in Chicago. We told this organization what we were doing and how we were thinking to solve this problem, and it just so happened that they were talking about that exact problem prior to our chat with them. They initiated a meeting with the VP of the organization, and a few conversations later, they were like, “Let’s do it!” And that was the beginning of the journey.

How did you come across your initial check or funding?

Techstars itself was the first check we got. When you’re accepted into the accelerator, they give you a direct investment, as well as a note that any company can accept on certain terms. So that was the very first money we had to start deploying towards things.

Coming out of the accelerator, there is a demo day where you have the chance to present what you’re doing and show a group of investors the progress you’ve made with your business idea, which also led towards our first batch of funding.

Final question — what’s one piece of advice you would give your younger self when you first started your company?

I feel like there’s a lot I could say, but the biggest piece of advice I’d give is the team you build is the company you build. Going back to the conversation of how it was hard for us to find our first designers — that felt super painful at the time. But I do believe that in the earliest days of a company when the product and market are still taking shape, finding the highest-caliber people to join you repays dramatically. It’s so critical — everything else is a function of that. If I could remind myself of anything in the earliest days, it would be to keep the bar for talent as high as possible.

Thank you so much for sharing your startup journey with us, Ablorde.

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