Knowing the right people can make or break your career. But if you don’t have a mentor to show you the ropes, building and maintaining a professional network is a lot harder than it sounds.
“Relationship building is a lot like a game in that it has its own set of rules, a language and a vocabulary,” said David Vandegrift, co-founder and CTO of 4Degrees. “People who don’t know how to play that game are at an incredible disadvantage in the American professional economy.”
Vandegrift and co-founder Ablorde Ashigbi have witnessed the power of networking firsthand. The pair worked together at Pritzker Group Venture Capital, and they both attribute the opportunities that got them there to the relationships they’ve been able to build and cultivate. In this respect, both founders say their career paths stand in stark contrast to those of their parents.
“My parents are West African immigrants who came to America with very little in the way of professional connectivity — and much of my family followed in their footsteps,” said Ashigbi. “They’re all capable, smart, talented people, but a lot of them haven’t had the level of professional success that you would expect, given their levels of talent.”
With their new startup, Ashigbi and Vandegrift want to level the playing field. Their platform leverages artificial intelligence to identify a user’s most important professional relationships. From there, it offers pointers on how to strengthen those relationships and turn acquaintances into friends and trusted advisors.
The platform also helps users tap into their networks for new opportunities, whether they’re recruiting, looking for a job or seeking funding for a startup of their own.
While 4Degrees shares a lot of basic functionality with customer relationship management platforms like Salesforce, the founders said the startup’s key differentiator is a philosophical one. Unlike a CRM provider, 4Degrees operates on the premise that your contact network belongs to you — not the company you work for.
Vandegrift said 4Degrees, which is currently participating in the Techstars Chicago program, derives most of its insights from email and calendar data.
“It’s an incredibly rich data source that’s relatively untapped today,” he said. “A network like LinkedIn only contains information that you’ve manually flagged, or that other people have flagged for you. We actually live in a lot of people’s primary digital communication medium.”
Today, the platform focuses primarily on metadata, like whom you email, how often they reply and how long it takes them to do so.
4Degrees is also working with Dan Roth, a natural language processing expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to explore options for analyzing email content. The founders said content analysis will help the platform understand what kind of relationship the user has with its correspondents.
“You can be synced to multiple different email accounts, and the system will continue to work even if you unplug from one, or even all, of them,” said Ashigbi. “In some ways, it becomes a system of record of the contacts that matter to you.”
The founders said the basic version of 4Degrees will be free, but the startup will also offer domain-specific premium versions that draw on external data sources. Ashigbi said the premium versions will be able to infer the importance of less-frequent contacts and identify people currently outside the user’s network they might benefit from knowing.
Other features on the horizon include a tool that suggests relevant subject matter for follow-up emails. Ashigbi said this functionality would help lower the bar for reaching out to old contacts.
Since 4Degrees’ ultimate aim is to make networking more accessible, the founders have devoted a lot of thought to getting the user experience right. The key to doing so, said Vandegrift, will be to make the platform as simple to use as possible and to automate any process that can be automated — ranging from data entry to setting up meetings during business trips.
To that end, the two founders are in the process of looking for a UX designer as their first full-time hire. But that hire is only the first among many to come.
“We’re not trying to create a lifestyle business, so we’re going down the venture path to raise money and make a bevy of hires in the next 12 to 18 months,” said Vandegrift.
Image via 4Degrees.