Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots
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508 - Drumming Up Connections: Jessica Wallace on Networking in Real-Time

January 18th, 2024

In this episode, host Victoria Guido talks with Jessica Wallace, the CEO of Flok22, an innovative app designed to enhance real-time social networking. Victoria delves into Jessica's unique journey from her roots as a hairdresser to becoming a tech entrepreneur. They explore how Jessica's personal experiences and challenges, including being a military wife and navigating life post-divorce with three children, fueled her drive to create Flok22. Jessica's desire to connect people in real-time, especially in the post-COVID era, led to the birth of this groundbreaking app.

Victoria and Jessica discuss their mutual passion for music, revealing how their hobbies provide a creative outlet from the demanding world of startups. Jessica shares her aspirations to return to playing the drums, a skill inspired by her family's musical background, and her journey in learning the instrument during the pandemic.

On technology and entrepreneurship, Jessica dives into the challenges and triumphs of developing and marketing Flok22. She reflects on the importance of networking, particularly in the startup community, and how her app addresses the inefficiencies and awkwardness often encountered at networking events. Victoria and Jessica discuss the evolution of Flok22, emphasizing its focus on enhancing in-person connections and its pivot towards a more event-centric approach, as well as the future of networking, the potential of Flok22, and their shared enthusiasm for making meaningful connections, both professionally and musically.

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Transcript:

VICTORIA: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Victoria Guido. And with me today is Jessica Wallace, CEO of Flok22, the app that helps you make friends and grow your network in real-time situations. Jessica, thank you for joining us.

JESSICA: Thank you for having me.

VICTORIA: Yeah. Well, just to get us started and warm up here, Jessica, is there any new skill or any skill you've come back to to practice more recently to kind of take your mind off of all the founder stuff that's happening?

JESSICA: Yeah. It's been a busy past two months of events and things like that. So, I've kind of been taking a little bit of downtime. I am hoping to start practicing the drums. I play those, and I haven't been doing that in a while. They've been kind of staring me down, so...

VICTORIA: So, were you a drummer before? Were you in a band, or?

JESSICA: No, never was in a band. Actually, my dad and my uncle were drummers in a band. And as a kid, I would kind of pick up the drumsticks. And I remember my uncle kind of saying like, "Hey, is that Jessica down there?" Because I would sound like I was playing [laughs] something. Yeah, it took me a while to get into it. But during COVID, I picked it up and started practicing.

VICTORIA: I love that. So, do you have a whole drum set at home, or do you have one of those, like, electric?

JESSICA: I have both. I have the electric one, which I think I'm going to kind of get out and mess with. But I have an actual full drum set. It's like a TAMA light blue little set.

VICTORIA: That's so fun. I like playing the drums, but I never made the leap to actually own my own drum set. So, whenever my friends have it, though, I can play, like, maybe one or two beats on [laughs] it. Nothing that impressive, but yeah, it's a lot of fun.

JESSICA: Do you play any other instruments?

VICTORIA: Yeah, I've always...I played piano when I was younger, and then clarinet and bass guitar through, like, middle school and high school. I did have a band in college. We played two shows, and they were both at my house, which was a lot of fun.

JESSICA: [laughs]

VICTORIA: I had kind of stopped playing music, and then when COVID happened, it was like, well [laughs], I guess I need to find another hobby again. So, I picked up piano again. And now I've been playing keyboard and trying to sing at the same time, which has been entertaining for everyone in my household, so...[laughs]

JESSICA: Very cool. Too bad we didn't, like, catch up during COVID time. We could have started a band.

VICTORIA: Yes. Yeah. I'm trying to think of a way to get more disciplined about practicing, actually, because that's...I know people who practice for, like, three hours a day every day. And I'm just like, how do you make yourself sit there for that long [laughs]?

JESSICA: That's definitely been the challenge with me. And then, of course, being in a startup, and then, you know, that kind of got put on the backburner, but I hope to pick it up.

VICTORIA: Yeah, right? So, we met at San Diego Startup Week, which was a fantastic event here in San Diego; a different location every night and, different speakers, and all of these really interesting people to meet. So, why don't you tell me a little bit about what brought you to San Diego Startup Week?

JESSICA: Well, first things first is being a startup here in San Diego, so that made me go. And I knew it's very important, the more I'm realizing, to build your network and connect with people, and especially just within the community, getting yourself out there to be known, talking to other companies, even just showing your support to other startups. It's such an important thing to do.

VICTORIA: And your app, Flok22, specifically, solves some problems people might have with going to an event like that and trying to make friends and network with people. So, can you tell me a little bit more about the initial problem you had when you just came up with the idea for the app?

JESSICA: So, the initial problem was kind of around COVID time when everything opened back up. And there was this plethora of meetup apps that everybody was on trying to make these connections. And I would start to go out with friends, and as I'm looking around, it was that weird, awkward time where you couldn't talk to anybody you didn't come with.

And I would literally see people, including my friends, swiping on matching apps while they were sitting at the table, but nobody was talking to one another. And that's when I realized we needed something that was more venue-based, where it was like, hey, I'm here. I'm out. Let me see who's available to connect. And that's where the concept came about.

And then, during a lot of these networking events, I started to realize the same thing. It was people trying to network, and we're still doing the old-school name tags and signing our name on a paper. And it would just be so much more easier to have everybody on that one platform to connect with a little bit more effective and efficiently.

VICTORIA: And so, how long has it been since you had this idea and you've been in this journey with Flok22?

JESSICA: Well, it's been a little over two years. Right around COVID is when I got the idea. I was a hairdresser for, like, 20-plus years and wasn't working and at home with my three kids. And the idea just was kind of pricking at me. And it took me a while to try and figure out, you know, how can I do this? How can I, with no funds, you know, newly divorced, three kids, how am I going to start an app? And I just kept pushing on trying to connect with the right people and build a product.

VICTORIA: I love that. What inspired you? Like, you had this idea for an app. And you're like, you know what? I'm going to make it work. Like, what kept you going? What made you think this is a thing I can put my time and energy into and be successful?

JESSICA: You know, there's a lot of factors. I feel like it's just one of those things where you kind of just...you know how you just get that instinct and idea, and you're like, I just can't let it go? And I remember hitting a low point because I had tried to call different development teams. I had tried to do it on my own. And I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere.

And I was literally walking on a treadmill, and a friend gave me this YouTube thing to listen to, and it was Les Brown. And he was talking about if you were on your deathbed, you know, these ideas and these dreams, they're just staring you with angry eyes because they came to you for life. And it, like, hit me, like, very intensely to where I was like, I have to do this. I can't just look back in my life and be like, I had this idea. I know somebody's going to do it because everybody would be like, "This is a great idea." So, it's just a matter of you just got to keep going.

VICTORIA: Well, I'm glad that you're working on this because I can totally relate to that experience of, you know, for me, I came from Washington, D.C., and moved to San Diego. When I was in D.C., I had spent years in the meetup community and organizing meetups. And so, it got to the point where anytime I went to a meetup, I would know at least one person there.

And now coming to San Diego, like, starting it all over again, was very daunting. And, like, walking into...what was it? San Diego tech event where there's, like, 100 people in this beautiful Balboa Park location and just being so nervous [laughs]. I'm like, who do I talk to? Like, how do I get started? And you immediately think I should just leave and go home [laughs]. But let me get a glass of Chardonnay and go over to the craft makers table and make some art and then I'll, like, feel a little bit better.

So yeah, I'm curious, like, so you had this great idea. Like, you knew you wanted to put your effort into it. As you started going through the process of figuring out how to get started or how to find that market fit, was there anything that surprised you in your early stages that made you pivot into a new direction?

JESSICA: Well, I would say just, like, hearing your story, so many of us have been in that boat. I used to be a military wife, so I was always picking up and moving. And the older we get, it's hard to build and start up your network again. And I see a lot of people posting on Facebook or, you know, Instagram, and they're, like, putting their profile out there trying to make friends. So, there's definitely a need for it.

Originally, I wanted it more for the social aspect, which was coffee shops, bars, restaurants, being able to just check in and see who's there that is open to connect. One thing we did kind of start to realize is a lot of people, even though they want to make those connections, people are still nervous to claim that they're trying to, like, make a friend. So, the biggest thing that we learned in the product-market fit was people were more inclined to use it for networking. They felt a little bit more secure and safer that way. So, I would say that would be a thing that we kind of picked up on.

VICTORIA: Yeah, that makes sense. Because when I'm going to networking, like, of course, I would love to find leads for people who need consulting work from thoughtbot or software development or platform engineering. But if you go in with that intention, it's disingenuous, and it's not very effective. Whereas if you go into a networking event with the intention to make friends and just to learn about people and to find common interest, it's, like, indirectly aiming at your target is the best way to actually get there [laughs]. So, it makes sense. And so, you pivoted into more events and networking. Has there been anything that you've found about that experience or that group of people that's surprised you, or?

JESSICA: I do feel like the social side will pick up on it. I just think it's going to take a little bit more time. But with the networking, I wasn't really doing any of that until I got into this startup. So, I didn't even see the need for it until I got in there. And then here I am, you know, going to a table, trying to find my name tag, and everything's still very much old school when it comes to that. And so, that was what surprised me is just was, like, this would be perfect. Everybody's trying to exchange their LinkedIns. Everybody is trying to find the right person.

And sometimes you get stuck in a conversation with somebody for 20 minutes, and it's some sales guy from who knows where, and you're just like, uh, I'm not really looking for that. You know what I mean? Great to connect, but got to go. So, it's so much better to just find the right people that you're looking for and network more efficiently.

VICTORIA: Yeah, I don't know if this is that exact experience, but what I've kind of heard from other founders is sometimes you go to a networking event, and maybe you're looking for, like, mentors or people to help you or your own [inaudible 10:09]. And then there's more people trying to sell things to you [laughs] than there are, like, those actual people you're looking for who would help you. So, that's really interesting. So, now you've started to kind of really get involved in the networking. And I'm curious: how many events have you gone to so far this year? Do you have a rough estimate?

JESSICA: I'm, like, trying to think. It's, like, such a blur because I really have been going to so many. And also, I've been a part of the SDAC E-track, which is the Angel Conference, San Diego Angel Conference that's coming up. So, we're hoping to get accepted in that. I'm going to say, at least this month, probably 12, I would suspect.

VICTORIA: Wait, 12 this month?

JESSICA: I think so, yeah. And some of them have been little ones. Like, I've done some happy hour events. There's these really cool, like, social happy hour events I've been trying to kind of partner up with. So, definitely some smaller ones, and then some bigger ones, and then including my E-track. So, that's kind of the calculation I have.

VICTORIA: Wow, I mean, there's only been 15 days so far this month, so 13 events that's quite a lot [laughs]. I hope you do get some time to rest and play the drums later this month. But that's really exciting. So, I'm curious: as a founder, obviously, you have an event space networking app. But have you found other benefits from growing your network as an early-stage founder?

JESSICA: Definitely. The biggest impact is connecting with these people. And whether you read that book, "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," they say, you know, "Poor people look for work, and rich people build networks." And it's true because I'm noticing that for myself. You get around these people, and most of the time, they really do want to help, or you just need to have the ask, you know, ask what you're looking for. And they're more than willing to set you up with other people to get partnerships.

I ended up meeting somebody at the MIC Conference, which was in Vegas last month. And they connected me with somebody who now we are going to be partnering with them to have our app be used at their conference. So, it's as simple as that, just once you're in front of them and you get that more personal touch, and then they kind of refer you to other people.

VICTORIA: Oh, that's great. And how does your app compare to the existing apps that are out there for networking at events or for managing attendees at events?

JESSICA: Well, currently, there's not anything that's doing it in real-time. There is some conference events they have, like Cvent, Whova app. Personally, to me, it was just there's so much going on. You have the event, you know, vendors. You have the schedule. You have so much going on. And for us, our main thing is just connecting you to the right person. So, it's a more simplistic version of just being able to simply check in, see the profiles of the people that are there, see what it is that you're looking for, and know that you want to connect with them.

Also, the other feature that we have is allowing you to see anybody that you may have missed when you leave. So, you can kind of easily filter through those profiles and decide who to reach out to. I mean, similar to maybe, like, a meetup, but it's more just on demand. There quite hasn't been anything that's doing it right instantaneously.

VICTORIA: Yeah, and I can agree. I've used some of those apps before. And what I've noticed there's just not a ton of activity or user activity on the day of. And I'm curious to see...I really want to try out Flok, too. I know I'm like [laughs], I haven't had a chance to actually get in there yet, but it is on my to-do list.

So, I'm curious, you know, as someone who didn't have a background in technology or building applications, like, how did you go about getting up to speed and finding the people you needed to help you actually build the app?

JESSICA: Yeah, I mean, being a hairstylist, I was not tech at all. So, it's pretty interesting that here I am, you know, in this app development world. The main thing was just getting out there. I knew I had already been on so many apps just, whether it was some of the dating apps, meetup apps, so I knew how they operated and what I was looking for as a customer that I wanted to fix.

Most of the time, it was heavily with all these pictures, and prompts, and things like that, and I would get bored of setting it up. It would take me, like, you know, 30-plus minutes. Not to mention, I call it, like, adding people to your cart. It's just very impersonal. You got so many people just piling people to their cart. You might talk to them for a little bit, then stop. And I think people are just kind of getting over it. It's time-consuming. It's a lot of time and planning, and sometimes you plan something and then...even with the girls meeting a friend, it's like they plan something for Thursday, and somebody cancels, and then you're SOL, you know?

VICTORIA: Oh yeah. So, you had experience with using different apps for, like, networking or meeting people and making friends, and you saw that there was this gap. And then, how did you go to actually building the app? And were there any lessons that you learned in that process?

JESSICA: That was my experience and why I was doing that. The main thing I did after that was I started hitting up events to find and recruit. That was how I started finding...I met my co-founder through a mutual friend. She's been wonderful. She's, like, complete opposite of me. She's, like, the business-organized one. Like, hey, we need an LLC. We need this. We need that. I'm more just the idea and brains and kind of behind the scenes. Then I started going to some tech events, met our UI UX designer, Laura, who's been fantastic.

So, that would be my advice to people. If you're looking to build and you're trying to find the right people, of course, LinkedIn could be a good spot. Y Combinator could be a good spot. For me, I think going out there and actually making the personal connections and meeting the people and ask them and find what you're looking for.

VICTORIA: And you could now even use Flok22 to find your early founder team [laughs].

JESSICA: Exactly. See?

VICTORIA: That's awesome.

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VICTORIA: So, you went out, and you just met people, and you had this compelling vision of what you wanted to build and were able to recruit them onto your team. Was there anything...you know, you've been at this for two years now. Through the development process, was there anything you learned about what to do or what not to do in how you engage with your designers and developers?

JESSICA: You know, it's like, we dove out there, like, headfirst. And then there was a period of time where we needed to pause and re-calibrate, and that was due to the fact that you have to be very diligent in looking for development if you're outsourcing. If you know a CTO or you have somebody in-house that, you know, you're working with, you may not have the problems that we ran into. But with outsourcing, there's still very much a gray area. And we ended up getting a product that was not really functional and had a lot of issues, which caused a huge setback for us. It was a great, you know, lesson learned if that. But you have to be really particular on who you're finding.

I would suggest heavily on finding somebody that is a referral from somebody that you know, as a matter of fact, that they use. Because nowadays, there's times that they can almost, like, fake what they have. I mean, they might have references. They'll put stuff up on their website showcasing products that they did, and those aren't even products that they did. So, we ran into a huge deal with that. But it made us take a step back. We re-honed in on our user persona, had our UI UX designer redesign everything, and came back out here again.

VICTORIA: Yes, because people will let you pay them to build anything [laughs].

JESSICA: Oh yeah.

VICTORIA: But it may not be exactly what you wanted. And what you said, going with someone who is a referral, going with someone who, I think, clearly demonstrates that they need to understand the underlying issue, as opposed to just being willing to take whatever requirements you have and build it. That's a big differentiator for companies.

And it can be frustrating because I think, you know, for thoughtbot, sometimes people come to us, and they're like, "We already have the designs. We already know what we want. You just build it for us." And we [inaudible 19:21], like, coach them around that. Like, are you sure? Like, let's look at your market validation, and let's look at your product fit. And, you know, let's go back and make sure that we're all aligned and that you're actually getting value out of something, and showing you the results on a regular basis, as opposed to it'll be done in three months, and you just wait until then. Sometimes, that can be $150,000 later, and, at the end, you're not actually getting a product that you really wanted.

JESSICA: Exactly. And like I said, there's still a big, gray area in that where, you know, you can be given a product, and it's not even barely working, or it looks like garbage. And you're kind of stuck because trying to go after these people to get your money back it's most likely not going to happen. And then you just lost out on all that money you put into that product. So, it can be very frustrating for people.

I hope to eventually kind of shed light on that and maybe help people along the way, so they don't fall trap to those type of kind of scammers that are out there for development. And I'm sure you, being CTO, you've seen a lot of that [chuckles].

VICTORIA: Yeah, that's something we work really hard to kind of coach clients around and figure out to make sure because we don't want to end in that situation where our founder feels like we built something for them that doesn't work or doesn't look great, or what they're happy with [chuckles]. So yeah, I think it's very common. It happens to a lot of people. But I'm happy that you didn't get discouraged and you said, you know what? We can go for round two. Let's take what we learned and put it into the next version of the app.

And one of my favorite phrases from doing this podcast that I've heard is, "If the first product you build if you're proud of it, you didn't do it fast enough" [laughs]. So, like, usually, the first thing you build is not pretty, but you had to push through and build something. And that's the first application you've ever built. So, how did you feel about the second time going around? What did you do differently to be happier with and prouder of the product version that you put out there?

JESSICA: Yeah, I like that phrase, too, and sometimes I'm the same. It's kind of like, you know, fail fast and get out there. But the second build was definitely so much more smoother and better. But, actually, we are in transition to a newer, bigger development team because there's still some things that we're just not completely set on. And I do think that moving along to this next development team, there's a more better fit.

And then, we also received a grant from AWS to build a better back-end infrastructure, so when we do scale up, and there is more people on there, that it can withhold that capacity. So, I'm definitely happy with it right now. And I know that getting it out there—and you know this, too—is just getting it out there with all the users, you know, there may be some different feedback coming in and out. We plan on, you know, making any changes necessary if need be, and just kind of always making it a little better each time.

VICTORIA: Is that the AWS Activate program?

JESSICA: It's not the Activate, but it's just we're actually working with a company, and it was AWS. They had filled everything out for us, you know, they want to help startups getting out into the app world because, again, if we're making money, they're making money, too, with it being on their servers. So, it's kind of a win-win. And we can store all of that data and be able to scale up properly.

VICTORIA: Absolutely, yeah. And so, for those who don't know, the AWS Activate program, you can apply for up to $100,000 in free credits, and other cloud providers have similar programs where you can get free money [chuckles]. But, no, that's really cool that you're a part of that. So, what challenges do you see on the horizon for Flok22?

JESSICA: Of course, I hope there's going to be none, but we know in this entrepreneurial world, it's always there. I think, you know, the hard part are always going to be kind of those situations where maybe people aren't using the app properly or things of that sort happening. Other app companies have dealt with that. It's like, you could be out somewhere, and a situation happens.

So, that's kind of the only thing that I would be worried about is just ensuring the safety of all of our users, making sure that everybody is understanding. And I guess when that time comes and if there are things that, you know, come at you, it's just a matter of handling it. So, I hope it's not anything too heavy, but I guess we'll see.

VICTORIA: Yeah. Well, I appreciate you having that concern early on. Because I do feel like sometimes people create apps for networking and collaboration without thinking about the safety of their users. And it's more common from founders who have never been in a situation where they're unsafe [laughs]. So, like, maybe from your unique perspective, you, like, know that that is an issue that you might need to solve or that will come up, and having a plan for it makes sense.

JESSICA: We definitely have a plan for it. I mean, a lot of people don't realize with these apps that are out there, there's actually been a pretty high increase in, like, sex trafficking and different things. And most people don't know that because they're not the ones going in there and doing the market research.

So, our main thing is getting people out there to meet in public places, which is much safer. You're not, you know, getting lured and unsure if that's even the person who that they say they are, or you're going to someone's house or on a hike. It just makes it for a much safer environment. And then we're working on some other added features where, you know, you can kind of validate the people just to ensure that.

VICTORIA: Yeah, that makes sense. And what is the wind in your sails? What keeps you going and keeps you excited about working on this?

JESSICA: It's my passion. It's kind of like now; this has been my baby for a couple of years. So, of course, my family is always number one. I have three kids, a rat, two dogs, and a lizard. I adore my family, but I just have a passion for this. And I know that it's just a matter of time before this becomes a thing. And so, I just push myself on the daily trying to figure out the solutions and just keep moving forward with it.

VICTORIA: And what does success look like in six months, or even beyond that, in five years?

JESSICA: I think, for us, it will just be getting that heavy adoption of users, getting known out here in San Diego or in other parts. We plan on trying to hit more of the major cities where you got a lot of newcomers coming in and traveling, whether that's Chicago, New York, Miami, Vegas. As we get that adoption, just growing as a company and see where it goes from there.

VICTORIA: That's great. Yeah, I look forward to when I can go to a conference and just identify who are all the rock climbers in the room, and I can go bug and talk about [laughs], like, climbing with. I love that.

JESSICA: And, two, going to these conferences, also, not only your...you get to connect with the people that are there, but it's the people in the surrounding city, too. It's like a lot of people leave the conference, and they want to go to a bar or a coffee shop. And the fact that you have the option or opportunity to connect with the people who are there as well is a win-win.

VICTORIA: I love that, yeah. And do you have any questions for me about thoughtbot, or the podcast, or anything like that?

JESSICA: For me, you being, like, a CTO, I know you've maybe...have you seen apps like this become successful? I would love your take on kind of getting out there in the market for something like this because we are at that stage where we're trying to hit the market pretty heavily. We're hitting college campuses, you know, bigger conferences, trying to get that adoption in small clusters for it to be, you know, fun and usable for users. But I would love your take on that.

VICTORIA: Yeah, and, actually, I'm a managing director. Our CTO is Joe Ferris, who's currently my acting dev director for my team. But from my experience, you know, there might be a lot of competing apps who try to aim for similar things. But if you're very closely understanding your users and their needs and focusing on solving their problems, then you will find your niche, and you'll be able to be successful and grow that from there. So, if you have a strong vision for what the problem is and you're willing to actually listen to your users and pivot based off of that, that will set you up to be successful.

Yeah, and I've talked about this with other friends who are really into networking and meeting up with people. And there continues to be this gap of, like, how people communicate and how we actually connect. So, I think you're on the right track [chuckles], and you're doing a lot of great things.

And I think the only other advice I would say is what you've already kind of pointed out is to make sure you're not burning out early on and that you're taking that time and space to be with your family and to do your hobbies, and having a strong rest ethic as you do a work ethic and making sure you're still a whole person. And you'll make better decisions if you're giving your brain a little bit of downtime.

JESSICA: Definitely. I so agree with you. That's very important to have that balance. And we just hope that we can fill that gap when it comes to the networking. So, I hope that everyone can give it a try and see what they think.

VICTORIA: I love that, yeah. Is there anything else that you would like to promote?

JESSICA: I mean, honestly, this is not so much about me. I'm really passionate about this app and networking and connecting people together and getting it, so it's just more easy for everybody to connect out in person without wasting that time and energy. Just be out doing you and meet the right people. That's what Flok22 is all about.

VICTORIA: I love that. And we'll have to get together and play some music. I'll tell you the two songs I have memorized on piano right now are Kiss from a Rose by Seal and Someone Like You by Adele, so...[laughs]

JESSICA: Oooh.

VICTORIA: But we do have a bit of a girls' band going in San Diego, so we'll connect on that, too [laughs].

JESSICA: Yeah, we'll have to link up. Add some drums to your...

VICTORIA: We don't have a drummer, so that's perfect, yeah [laughs].

JESSICA: See? It's networking at its best [laughs].

VICTORIA: Yes, yeah. I love it. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate hearing your story.

You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at hosts@giantrobots.fm. And you can find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.

This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening. See you next time.

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