Ablorde Ashigbi is the founder and CEO of 4Degrees, a company helping you automatically track your relationships & deals with actionable intelligence to help you move them forward. Prior to founding 4Degrees he was a venture capitalist with Pritzker Group in Chicago. He began his career at Bain & Company as a consultant and is a graduate of Harvard University. Learn how Ablorde overcomes obstacles, focuses on relationships, and more. Here’s his story!
Tell us who you are and what you’re building.
I’m Ablorde Ashigbi, the founder and CEO of 4Degrees, a Chicago startup. We are a product that helps professionals manage and maximize their most important professional assets, which are the relationships and networks that they build. The way that we do that is by plugging into a bunch of communication channels like email and calendar which allows us to get an automatic sense for who your team is connected to and communicating with. We then apply a bunch of technology on top of that, that’s meant to help you and your team take that network and use it for professional purposes.
Take us on a journey from the end of high school to now.
Post high school I was an undergrad at Harvard University, where I graduated with a degree in government with a minor in economics. I was also a hammer and discus thrower on the track team and ultimately became the team captain. I spent a bunch of my time doing other extracurriculars I found interesting. I’ve always been interested in economic growth and job creation, so that led to a bunch of summer projects working around those areas. I came into college with the idea that I was going to become a lawyer and then from there move into politics with the thought being that the way you ultimately make an impact in the world is by having the power to do such things. After one internship in state government, I realized relatively quickly that that is a very idealistic idea of how change actually happens. So I quickly started searching for a different way that I could go about trying to impact the world. Funny enough, that led me toward consulting. It was a place where I thought I could build the skill set of breaking down different kinds of problems, understanding the drivers, and then figuring out the right solutions to those problems as well as figuring out how to communicate them in ways that are compelling to people. That led to an internship at Bain & Company, a large management consulting firm, after my junior year, and I accepted an offer to go back after my senior year. I spent the first three years of my career at Bain doing consulting work for a range of large companies–everything from Fortune 500 businesses to large, privately-held businesses, running the gamut from growth strategy to performance improvement to organization restructuring. I learned a ton about “business,” in the broad sense of the word, while also gaining a lot of confidence in my own analytical and communicative capabilities. I also learned a lot about being professional and built a set of relationships and a network that is still a core part of the way I operate to this day.
Eventually, I wanted to get back to those core interests of economic growth and job creation, so I started seeking out ways that I could get closer to the day-to-day reality of what it looks like to build companies and create jobs. During my free time at Bain, I did some pro bono projects with local startups in the Los Angeles area, where I was based. That experience led me to realize that that is where I wanted to spend my time. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to do that in a sense by becoming a venture capitalist. I joined a fund here in Chicago called Pritzker Group Venture Capital. Pritzker is one of the larger funds here in Chicago, primarily Series A and Series B, and I spent three years there as an investor, learning the trade of analyzing and understanding early-stage businesses, as well as jumping in and helping founders with projects. That was a great job and I really enjoyed working with the phenomenal group of people at that firm.
From working in those two worlds–consulting and venture–I realized the importance of relationship building and networks, and understanding how both those businesses operate was one of the big inspirations behind 4Degrees.
How has your view of building companies changed because of your different experiences?
As a result of the path I’ve been on, one thing that I really appreciate is the sheer importance of the relationship network that you have, and the kinds of opportunities that it generates for you. So many important things like meeting investors and finding customers are largely a function of who you know and how good of a job you’ve done building the relationships with those folks. That is definitely a big driver of how I spend my time at 4Degrees, as well as where we’re spending our time and attention as a business.
A second realization is just how hard it is. As a VC, we saw thousands of companies a year, and the vast majority of those didn’t turn into the large successes that we all hoped that they would. And it’s not through any fault of their own, but building a long-term, sustainable, fast-growing company is a really difficult task, and a lot of things have to line up. That understanding led to two more. The first is a belief that you just have to work really hard, and you have to assemble a great team and put all the things in your favor that you possibly can in order to try to make the odds tilt even slightly more in your favor. Second, it changed the bar for me in terms of the kinds of opportunities that are worth pursuing. If you recognize that most things may not work out, then it has to be something that you’re passionate enough about pursuing, and then if it succeeds, it typically takes a decade to get to the level where you can exit or will get to become a public company. So, you have to be willing to put a decade of your life into this. Very few things meet those two combined bars, and I think the experience I gained in my prior roles led me to understand the reality of these situations.
Now, there are people who start off with one business, and it turns into something completely different. A good example of this is Slack. They started out as a gaming company building a video game. That wasn’t going in the direction that they intended, but in the meantime, they built this internal tool that they were using to coordinate their own efforts. Everyone wanted that tool and it became Slack. So, that’s not to say you can’t change your mission or change your objective into something that really works, but my personal belief is that if you’re going to make the leap, ideally it’s something that you’re excited about leaping for.
What did you learn about building companies or about growth while you were in Africa?
When I worked at Bain I had the opportunity to spend a six month period working in a couple of different roles on the African continent. I’ve always been passionate about economic growth and job creation, and I come from a family of West African immigrants, so I constructed two roles for myself over that period of time–both related to economic growth and job creation on the continent. The first was at an organization called the African Leadership Academy, based in South Africa. They take high performing students, with high leadership potential, from across the continent and bring them to Johannesburg, South Africa for a two-year program. The program has standard academic courses, along with a curriculum based around leadership and company building. They also run a program for the top youth entrepreneurs across the continent called The Anzisha Prize. I spent time working with some of the prior winners and finalists of that prize, helping them continue to develop and grow their businesses. From that experience, I learned about the universality of the entrepreneurial spirit. I think that spirit is everywhere, and potentially maybe even more prominent in places where the resources that are available to you are more constrained. I also learned how those same constraints also provide a different set of opportunities. Things that were built a while ago here in the States are actually very big entrepreneurial opportunities that people can go after and build really interesting companies there.
Next, I spent time working at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, a technology incubator based in Accra, Ghana—which was really cool because my dad is from Ghana! They have a course where they take post-university graduates who want to become technology entrepreneurs, teach them how to code, and also give them the high-level fundamentals of what it means to go build a company and be an entrepreneur. They also have an incubator, where afterward they would actually invest a little bit of money into the students’ companies, and then give them space and resources to help them grow those technology businesses. I spent time on both sides of that equation, but primarily with the incubator fellows. Ultimately, the learnings there were very similar. I think there are a couple of companies that have tapped into those ideas, and there is an incredible amount of talent on the continent. I think that U.S. companies can do a much better job of tapping into that talent. There are high-level engineers, developers, and designers who could either work for U.S. companies and make a lot of money or have an opportunity to build category-defining companies on their own continent. I think people in the U.S. and in Europe should be paying much more attention to them.
What would you tell readers about building a network?
Begin with authenticity. There are things you are passionate about. There is material you spend your time reading and things you don’t stop thinking about. I think all of those are surface points through which you can begin to build a relationship with people that you meet. So when you go to an event and you meet somebody who seems like they could be a really great part of your network or that has similar overlapping interests as you, use the things you’re reading, the knowledge you’re picking up, the network you have, to try to generate value for them. And don’t do it in a transactional way. Don’t give with the expectation of receiving, give because you think it’s valuable and because you think this person would genuinely appreciate it, and you would be shocked by the dividends that come to you as a result of doing that without expectation.
How have you been helped by your network or through mentorships along your journey?
I feel like 4Degrees and my career are a direct product of the people I’ve had the chance to meet and engage with, and who have poured into me in a bunch of different ways. For instance, coming out of college, I didn’t even know what consulting was. I had never heard of it. It wasn’t on my radar, until a friend of mine said, “Hey, you really should consider consulting, given the kinds of things you’re interested in and the way your brain works. I think you would actually really enjoy the experience.” That sent me down an entire career trajectory that led me to where I am today. Connections have been responsible for a lot of the funds we’ve been able to raise as a company, as well as some of the customers that have come through the door, and team members who have joined us along the way. In venture, relationships were responsible for a lot of the deals that I got a chance to take a look at and spend time on. I could go on and on. Honestly, I think there are fewer things that haven’t been touched by my relationships than the other way around.
What does growth mean to you?
There’s a famous essay written by the founder of Y Combinator, Paul Graham, titled “Startup = Growth.” The main idea is that what defines an early-stage company is that it is growing, and if it’s not doing that, then you have a lot of things to consider. So for an early-stage business, like 4Degrees, growth is survival.
I think being an entrepreneur forces you to grow at a pace that most other jobs can’t really hold a candle to, because you’re forced to learn a lot across a lot of different domains in a very short period of time. Prior to founding 4Degrees, I had never sold a product or had to market anything. I had written a little bit, but not much from a professional standpoint. I had hired very few people and had been a manager only in some very limited contexts. So there was a lot that I had to figure out. In some ways, it’s crazy to look back after 2+ years and realize how much I didn’t know, that now I can do at a semi-competent level.
Have you always considered yourself an entrepreneur? When did that mindset shift happen?
It’s easy for me to look backward and identify things I did that were entrepreneurial, but like someone who’s solving a problem or finding unmet needs and trying to fix them in some way. I can definitely look back and see those traits in myself. I don’t know that I ever directly said, “I am an entrepreneur,” or “What I’m going to do is build businesses” until I started 4Degrees. But looking back, I can see some precursors to that behavior.
Would you say that connecting the dots looking backward is a lot easier than connecting them looking forward?
Exactly. Also, to some extent, humans are often just very good at telling stories. And so once you get enough of the data points there, you can tell the story that matches it, but it’s harder to do that in advance.
How do you think about overcoming obstacles?
I guess it depends on the kind of obstacle in question. In most cases, I think the obstacles that we put in front of ourselves are self-generated or self-made, so it’s a matter of controlling your own psychology and your own emotions to enable you to just push through them. I guess you could say that most obstacles are in the mind. Of course, there are some obstacles that are very real, like losing a job or a family member. Those things are incredibly painful. I think in general, the right answer for most of those obstacles is just to keep going. Most companies fail because they run out of money or they quit, and if you keep going, stay committed, and continue pushing, then good things will end up happening. I recognize that there are some obstacles that can’t just be overcome through sheer force of will and effort, but most actually can be.
How do you think about self-care?
For me, self-care usually takes the form of finding things that give me energy or that I enjoy and trying to make sure I plug them into my routine. The activity that’s taking the biggest hit in the midst of all the social distancing is going to the gym. I used to go 4-6 times a week. Now I do kettlebell and bodyweight exercises, but it’s not quite the same. The second thing is connecting with people that are important to me. I also try to make sure I get enough sleep. I can’t say that I always do that well, but I know it’s an important part of the equation and something that I’m trying to work on improving. Then, in general, I’m just trying to pay attention to my health by focusing on things like nutrition, eating well, and managing my own energy. Finally, I also enjoy reading and make that an important part of my life. Most years I read about 40 books, and before 4Degrees it was closer to 60 books per year!
Is there a book that has been particularly impactful to you on your journey?
What piece of advice do you have for our readers?
Focus on people and relationships.
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