The following is a conversation between Jared Isaacman, the Commander of the First All-Civilian Voyage into Space which will benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: There are people in this world who strive to achieve incredible things. And then there are those who, while embarking upon those grand feats, seek to create an impact for even greater good. My next guest would be the latter. He is Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments and the commander of the first all-civilian mission to space later this year.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jared!
Jared: Thanks for having me, Denver. I really appreciate it.
Denver: This has been a lifelong dream of yours. In fact, you told your kindergarten teacher that someday, you were going to go up into space. What captivated you about space at such an early age?
Jared: Well, I suspect that I watched that ’80s movie, Space Camp, where all the kids wound up in orbit, and I was like, “Wow! That looks pretty cool.” And then I started reading just different picture books that they had in my elementary school and seeing the images of the Space Shuttle, and it’s just so captivating to imagine leaving the boundaries of our own planet. And, of course, you watch Star Trek and Star Wars, and you imagine yourself in one of those films or shows. So, yes, I think that’s where it began. And I started playing like flight simulators on computers that I built or my brother helped me build, and aviation just became a passion for me.
But when I started my company at 16, it was like I had to block everything else out in my life just to focus on the business, and I was just camped out in the basement every day working. And at one point, I started to feel almost like I was going to get burnt out — and I was probably barely 20 — and I said I’ve got to pick up a hobby, and I started flying again. And that’s when it all started to come back in a pretty big way.
Denver: I have to ask you — did you tell your kindergarten teacher anything else that you might do someday? Just so I’m prepared?
Jared: It’s funny that I recall that, but I’m sure I told her a lot of things actually. I probably was a little bit of a loudmouth, but I definitely remember telling her I was going to go to space someday.
Denver: That is so cool. Well, talk a little bit about starting that business. You just said you started the business in high school in your parents’ basement. As a matter of fact, you hired your dad. Tell us how that journey went from then until what was to become Shift4 Payments.
Jared: Sure. So actually, I started the company with a good friend, Brendan Lauber, even prior to Shift4. And it was just like that — a high school computer company. We were making websites or installing hard drives. There wasn’t anything too magical about it. But I went to work for CompUSA in Union, New Jersey, which was a big computer superstore.
Denver: I’ve been to it.
Jared: Yes, for sure. I basically used it as a way to generate leads for the business. So, of course, I did my job. If somebody wanted to buy something, I sold it to them. But if it looked like I could be helpful outside of business hours, I generated some leads that way.
And it turned out one of them was a credit card payments company that was also in Union, New Jersey called MSI. And went there and helped them out with things like eCommerce and some virus issues they were doing, and they wound up offering me a job. And I was like, “Well, I’m not really loving the high school thing at the moment, so let’s do that.”
And I worked there for six months, and I saw there was a lot of opportunity for improvement. And then I left and ultimately created what was Shift4 Payments in my parents’ basement. My family was super supportive because my father ultimately came to work with me.
Denver: How did they feel about you dropping out of high school? Although you did go on to get your GED. But how did that go down?
Jared: Well, that was the key requirement you see. You had to have the GED. I definitely would not have had my mother’s support if I didn’t get my GED. And I still took some classes on the side, too, and I wound up several years later getting my college degree at Embry-Riddle. But yes, there were definitely some hard rules if I was going to leave high school.
Denver: That’s probably where you got some of your negotiating skills, right at a very early age. “How do we pull this one off with mom and dad?”
Jared: That’s right.
Denver: So as you said, you’re working around the clock. You’re working like a dog. You’re concerned about burning out. So you take up flying, some of this younger passion than what you had. When did it turn from a hobby into a passion the way it did?
Jared: Well, it was virtually instantaneous. Once I started flying, I was hooked, and I just didn’t stop. I was flying probably 600-plus hours a year, which is quite a bit. That’s almost like airline pilot level in my earliest years, 2004, ’05, ’06, ’07. And you needed to because if you’re not going to the military track, it’s very hard to fly ex-military aircraft or experimental aircraft, and that’s what I was drawn to. So, by 2008 and ’09, I had plenty of jet type ratings. I was doing my around-the-world flights —
Denver: Breaking records at the same time.
Jared: Yes, that’s right. I actually flew in the Vietnam Heritage Flight in 2009 flying an A-4 Skyhawk. So I tried to progress very, very quickly, while I was also building my day job.
Denver: So how did it come to pass that you connected with Elon Musk and SpaceX, which is going to be the host for this voyage you’re going to be taking?
Jared: It was all actually right around the time of those record flights, so ’08 and ’09. It caught some attention from some of those in the early days of the commercial space industries like SpaceX, and I was invited to go to Baikonur, Kazakhstan to see the Soyuz launch. And I was all in, for sure. Yes, I definitely want to do this.
And the whole time I was expressing my interest that, “Look, if the opportunity ever presents itself, as the American space industry progresses and gets to this point, please keep me in mind.” And I’ve just been banging on the door ever since.
Denver: And you’re going to be flying the Dragon spacecraft. Tell us a little bit about that.
Jared: Yes. So, you have to talk about SpaceX to talk about Dragon because they created it. And SpaceX is just such an unbelievable company. Elon and his team, with the foresight more than 20 years ago, to embark on this non-government sponsored initiative to create a commercial space industry. They’ve done things that no one thought was possible. I think every time we see a rocket land on a ship in the ocean, it’s just like I-War. It’s amazing.
So they returned human spaceflight to the United States after like a decade since the Space Shuttle retired, and that spacecraft system is the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft. That’s what’s rated by NASA, and that’s what I’ll take up to space later this year.
Denver: I thought it was interesting what you just said there about 20 years ago. We don’t have many parts of our society that have the long view like that anymore. We are so short-term and are dealing with the problems that are present. We’re not really looking down around the bend a generation ahead the way Elon and his team did.
Jared: There’s no question. He is a very big-brained, cerebral individual that’s thinking about solving a lot of the world’s problems. And there’s others like him that came from his PayPal class of founders. The payments industry does OK with creating good entrepreneurs to solve problems.
Denver: They do.
Jared: They’ve done a lot of great things.
It was, right from the start: This is going to benefit an organization that’s going to help solve real problems that exist here on earth so that we do feel OK about going up and pushing the boundaries beyond our own planet. And the people who are going to represent this mission have to be inspiring in their own right to inspire a generation as to what can be done here on earth and what could be done among the stars.
Denver: They’ve got a pretty distinguished alumni, that’s for sure. Well, Jared, you’ve designed this space flight quite thoughtfully and intentionally, and it’s around four pillars, which represents each available seat on it. Tell us about those four pillars.
Jared: Sure. So this is a first. This is the first all-civilian mission to space, and recognizing that significance, you had to put a lot of thought into what you want it to represent. You couldn’t have four buddies going up into space together. You can’t have four white guys that are rich going into space together. That’s not what the first mission should represent. Now, maybe that will be the case 15 years from now. In fact, if space becomes affordable and accessible for everyone, then I don’t care who’s going up. It’s just a good thing that we are going up and we’re pushing the boundaries.
But the first requires a lot of thought and it was, right from the start: This is going to benefit an organization that’s going to help solve real problems that exist here on earth so that we do feel OK about going up and pushing the boundaries beyond our own planet. And the people who are going to represent this mission have to be inspiring in their own right to inspire a generation as to what can be done here on earth and what could be done among the stars.
So we came up with our mission pillars of leadership, hope, generosity, and prosperity. And this grand crew selection and fundraising process that we’re going through right now will identify the crew members who kind of fit every one of those mission pillars.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about “hope” because that person, I guess, has already been selected, who is… I don’t know if you can give us their name, but at least in terms of what they do.
Jared: So the woman who represents hope is a very special person, and I have had the opportunity to meet her on more than one occasion. So she is a childhood cancer survivor that was treated at St. Jude, beat the disease, and came back later in life as a healthcare professional who currently works at St. Jude, helping other kids in the fight against childhood cancer.
She’s got some family connections to even the space industry, so this is something that isn’t totally unfamiliar territory for her, though I can’t imagine she ever thought she’d go up in space someday. She’s an awesome crew member, and she absolutely represents the mission “spirit of hope” incredibly well.
Denver: We’re going to get to generosity in a second, but tell us about prosperity.
Jared: Sure. So, again, all of this really came together very quickly. Inspiration4 is like two-and-a-half months old, maybe three months old. So all of this came together at the Crew-1 launch in November. And from there, it’s: We don’t have a lot of time. You have to have your crew identified by the first week of March to make your training window to make your launch later this year.
So all that thought just got crammed together of: It’s a first; We have to do this right; We have to benefit an unbelievable organization; We have to be thoughtful in our crew members’ selection process; and basically, pull all this together in a very quick period of time.
And in that thought process, it was… well, I’ve been very fortunate in life as an entrepreneur, and I wanted to identify somebody else with that next great business idea and try and help them elevate their business to the stars. So, incorporating an entrepreneur selection process among the broader crew selection process was pretty important to me.
And the way we chose to do that was with our Shift4Shop eCommerce platform, which costs nothing to use at all. You can sign up, create a website, and then make a video and put it out on social media and tell the world how you’re going to make an impact with your business and why it should be elevated to the stars. And then through an independent selection process later this month, we will have our crew member who represents the mission “spirit of prosperity.”
Denver: That is so cool. And “generosity”… boy, there are a lot of organizations in this country. I think there are about a million and a half nonprofit organizations. What compelled you to select St. Jude — a wonderful, wonderful organization — to be the beneficiary of this mission?
Jared: So it’s not unfamiliar territory for me. I have gone on a number of aviation adventures throughout my career. I have done those world record flights and air shows, and they all benefited an incredibly worthwhile organization. And Shift4 has had, my company has had a 20-year relationship with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. So it was very natural to go right to them.
And the reason being is rather personal in that I know how lucky I’ve been in life. I know that the ball has bounced my way many times. Actually, you can’t wind up in a position like I am in life without getting lucky several times. And then I think about the families and their children that are going through hell right now, that were dealt such a terrible hand in life.
And sadly, many of them may not actually grow up enough to experience anything close to what I’ve been fortunate enough to experience in my lifetime, and that’s just not right. It’s a huge problem, and we have to deal with it. And that’s why St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is going to be the beneficiary of this $200 million-plus fundraising effort.
Denver: And for a guy who’s going up in space, you are incredibly well-grounded. Of that $200 million effort, you’ve already pledged to contribute $100 million. How do listeners participate? What do they need to do? Where do they need to go in terms of getting in on this?
Jared: It’s a great question. All you have to do is go to the mission website, so inspiration4.com. And it’s going to be right there in front of you, your two paths, to potentially join us in space later this year.
And you can do both. You can absolutely make a donation to an incredibly worthwhile cause. Later this month, there’ll be a random selection process, and you can go to space. At the very least, you’ll probably get some cool swag along the way because if you make a donation, you get some cool stuff, too. And you can also take the entrepreneur path as well and create a Shift4Shop, and then tell the world about it and have a chance to go to space as well. It’s all on the mission website.
Denver: And in both of these cases, you need to do so by the end of this month, correct?
Jared: That’s right. Now, it doesn’t matter if you’re the first donation or the last donation, your chances are just as good. But I certainly would encourage people to get involved today because there’s a lot of new information coming out by the day on the website that I just think is interesting for people.
There has to be balance. We have an obligation to make progress in society because progress and innovation gives benefits back to the people that ease suffering and make life better than it was in the past. But at the same time, you can’t ignore the problems of the day either.
Denver: What I really love about this, too, because I’m old enough to have grown up in the 1960s, and I remember going to the moon. And that was at the same time that Lyndon Johnson was having the War on Poverty… Great Society. And there was so much criticism. Why are we diverting these funds to space with all the need here on earth? And you seem to have created a formula here, which is really addressing both of them. So, hats off to you on that.
Jared: I think there has to be balance. We have an obligation to make progress in society because progress and innovation gives benefits back to the people that ease suffering and make life better than it was in the past. But at the same time, you can’t ignore the problems of the day either.
That’s why I think this mission, which is about pushing boundaries and getting people excited about space exploration also incorporates such an important element like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which has nothing to do with rockets or space exploration, but it’s about curing childhood cancer today. And we’ve just got to do both, and we have to continue to do both, whether it’s in space or other parts of, or other initiatives that are going on in the world.
… a flight around the world without trying to solve some greater purpose is… it’s an adventure for me; it doesn’t make an impact as much on the rest of the world. And I think you have to combine those things. And I’ve tried to do it on every adventure I’ve ever gone on — to make the purpose bigger than the mission in itself.
Denver: Great leaders are able to maintain that dual focus. And very often, people get so focused, they can’t do that. They can only look at one thing. But you’ve had a beautiful balance here.
And this, Jared, is not your first charitable undertaking. You kind of alluded to that before. In some of your flights around the world and things of that sort, the beneficiaries have been Make-A-Wish. You have the Pennies for Humanity campaign with some of your merchants. You even started a charity poker tour. Was charitable giving a big part of your upbringing?
Jared: My parents’ favorite vacation spot when I was growing up was actually in Mexico. And I’ve seen a number of interesting cities throughout Mexico, just between the ages of like four and eight. And that was kind of my first exposure, I think, to human suffering.
I remember just seeing the poverty of the people living in the streets, and it always had an impact on me. I would save money throughout the year until we went on that vacation just to try and give it away and make somebody else’s life a little bit better than how it was before I got there. So I’d say that I’ve always tried to keep that in mind throughout my whole life.
Definitely feel fortunate again to be able to go and do things like flights around the world, but a flight around the world without trying to solve some greater purpose is… it’s an adventure for me; it doesn’t make an impact as much on the rest of the world. And I think you have to combine those things. And I’ve tried to do it on every adventure I’ve ever gone on — to make the purpose bigger than the mission in itself.
…whatever people’s perceptions are, do some work and get involved. This is like our obligation to leave the world a better place than we found it. It’s a great way to do it through charitable giving.
Denver: That’s just great. It’s always healthy to get perspectives about the philanthropic sector from people who understand it like you do, but who are not enmeshed in it and can offer fresh views. Do you see things, Jared, in the nonprofit sector that you maybe asked yourself “Why?” Or seen things that you say, “Boy, this could be done more effectively!” or “Could this create more impact?” I don’t know if anything comes to mind on that.
Jared: Well, I think that everybody just needs to be more involved. It’s hard because everybody has some sort of a spot that touches them, that… maybe it’s environmental, or civil, or social causes, or childhood cancer or other types of cancers, or American Heart Association. Everybody kind of has their thing. There is no wrong one. But I would encourage more involvement.
I think there is somewhat of a perception out there that not all of the dollars are going to the best use, but there are websites, there are organizations that track how efficient charitable organizations are with the allocation of their funds. And a lot of them are doing an awful lot of good out there in the world. There’s no question in my mind on St. Jude, there certainly is. I probably have received a hundred letters last week from childhood cancer survivors who’ve gone on to enjoy lots of great things in life because of the great treatment they got… they received at that hospital.
So, I’d say whatever people’s perceptions are, do some work and get involved. This is like our obligation to leave the world a better place than we found it. It’s a great way to do it through charitable giving.
Denver: Do you think there’d ever be a role for charitable giving and philanthropy in space? It used to be the purview of the government. Now, we’ve got private businesses up there, and we have competitions. It’s getting pretty crowded… a lot of countries. I don’t know if there’s a role for philanthropy. I was wondering if you thought there may be something that it could do.
Jared: Well, I think that there’s no question that right now, anything with space is a great expenditure. It’s costly. And I do think that whenever people, especially those with greater means than others in life, undertake any great expenditure, they should look at some sort of an offset or a means to make it bigger than just what they set out to achieve.
So I’m not trying to get super specific on space tourism or commercial space exploration, but whatever is going to happen in space now and in the 50- and 100 years ahead is going to cost an awful lot. And I’d certainly love for everybody who’s involved with it to say, “We should do this, and we should also try and make a difference here on earth along the way.”
That’s what we’re trying to do with Inspiration4, and I’d certainly invite all the others in industry that have ambitions beyond our planet and among the stars to try and do the same.
Denver: Let me ask you a couple more things about the voyage itself. How hard is it for someone to get ready and prepared to go up into space? You’re indicating they’re going to be picked in March. We’re looking at maybe October. What do you have to do over seven months to get ready to do that?
Jared: Well, it’s a lot of training. There’s no doubt. And we do have to become a team. We’re going to have to spend a lot of time together and get very familiar with each other and be in some very uncomfortable situations here on earth before we do it up in space. Now, the good thing is, is we’re not reinventing the wheel here. When NASA human-rated the Dragon and Falcon 9 spacecraft system, they human-rated the training program that goes with it, and that draws on 60 years of NASA experience and lessons learned. And that’s what we’re going to follow.
So that means a lot of time strapped in a simulator together as if it was a real mission going through normal and abnormal procedures. It means pad safety and enjoying the fun zip lines down in Kennedy Space Center and water survival. We’re going to spend an awful lot of time together, and I plan to supplement some of the training with some ideas as well that creates a more stressful environment here on earth.
Denver: Tell me a little bit about that. You’ve had a lot of experience building teams. You had the eight guys, I guess, down in the basement to, I don’t know, a company of 700, 800 people or something like that. Do you have a philosophy or approach when it comes to building a team?
Jared: Well, I’d say that my approach of building a team in the corporate setting is going to be a touch different than what we’re going to do with Inspiration4.
For example… and maybe it’s not that dissimilar. So actually, two years ago, come May, I took about 17 Shift4 leaders… managers up to Mount Rainier. And we lived together in this tiny shack at 10,000 feet, and then we pushed and summited the mountain. But we spent four days working together under stressful conditions, and I think it made us a better team in that environment.
I’m doing exactly the same thing with Inspiration4 except it’s going to be a really tiny tent that’s going to feel a lot like the spacecraft we’re going to live in for four days, take them up the mountain, create some stressful conditions because you want to make sure people are comfortable and can operate effectively in those environments as a team here, again, before we’re up in orbit together.
Denver: Going up in orbit — tell us about the journey itself and how long are you going to be up there?
Jared: So it’s going to be several days. We are thinking potentially four, might be three, but that’s the general window. And we’re still doing the mission planning itself. It’s currently contemplated to be a 51.6-degree inclination, which is the same as the International Space Station, which would certainly have some unbelievable views of the world.
But there’s still a lot that we’re still working through. In fact, I’ll be out at SpaceX at the end of next week as we continue to work through mission planning. But it will certainly be a Falcon 9 rocket that will launch us into space. So a two-stage launch system as everyone’s seen. The first stage, we’ll break off and use its guide fins and come back and land on the earth, which is awesome.
Denver: So cool.
Jared: And then we’ll hang out in Dragon for a couple of days. We’ve got some plans for payload and experiments to keep us busy, and we’ll have a heck of a view.
Denver: Will any of those experiments maybe involve St. Jude?
Jared: Absolutely. So they were the first to get the phone call. I think that just goes right back to our grand objective here to make this mission bigger than itself, to accomplish and solve problems on earth as much as we hope to push the boundaries in space.
So, St. Jude was the first phone call. We’ve also reached out to other education institutions. We’ve spoken to NASA. It’s a really long wait-list, a really long one. It’s super expensive to put payload into orbit. There’s a lot of really worthwhile experiments that people have been waiting years, decades to get into space, and we hope to help with that.
Denver: For those who may have missed it, tell us a little bit about your Super Bowl commercial and the impact that it had.
Jared: So, I’ve been saying it a lot over the last few weeks, the stars have really aligned for us in a number of ways. Just the time that this opportunity became available, which again was really November, the time that crew selection had to be submitted, which is the first week of March, and all the planning leading up to it was, “Well, geez. We’re going to do this crew selection process to identify these inspiring individuals. We’re absolutely going to do a grand fundraising campaign. And we want to energize the country around this mission. What’s a better stage to do it in than the Super Bowl?”
So we started sprinting towards that right from the start because it just lines up so well. And we had like such a great supportive group of creative talent and directors. Bryce Dallas Howard from The Mandalorian created it. So we were so fortunate that everything lined up, and I hope that we did energize a lot of people as to the Inspiration4 mission this past weekend.
Denver: It was a great spot, and it was also a quiet spot, and everybody else was yelling at you. And this was the one… the only one that I kind of leaned in, you know what I mean? And that’s about the highest compliment that I can give. So when we post this interview, we’re going to link that spot to it so people who have not had the chance to see it can see it there. What kind of response has it had?
Jared: We broke all records that any of our partners have ever seen before. Raised like $1.5 million in 90 minutes, which is pretty incredible. We’re more than 10% to our goal, and we have a lot more in store, so that makes us all really excited. And then just the number of inquiries, people reaching out, excited and wanting to participate — there were like thousands in a matter of a few hours. So I think we achieved our goal of getting everybody charged up.
And I was happy, by the way, to see other commercials that tried to highlight some worthwhile cause, get our emotions in the right place, like the Toyota commercial for example. That is one of the really good ones.
Denver: That’s right. Boy, you really move fast. How do you do that? We kind of lumber along. You look at Congress sometimes. You look at projects that take 10 years and things of that sort. You just said November, and look where you’re at in February, and then look where you’re going to be at in October. What’s the secret sauce to that?
Jared: I was telling my wife, I was like, “This one, I think I really pushed it.” There are more work streams in parallel that are all converging on February 1 than any other initiative or project I’ve ever worked on. And I’ve done a lot of mergers and acquisitions and such that are complicated. Nothing like this.
I think what helps is we had an awesome team, just a ton of people who are super passionate about the cause that wanted to give this their nights and weekends to make sure we were ready at the starting line on Feb. 1. So, I was very lucky. Great team to help us get there.
Denver: Finally, Jared, beyond the trip itself, what do you believe this voyage represents, signifies about the future of humankind in space? And what are your own future plans when it comes to space exploration? Because I don’t believe this is going to be the last word.
Jared: A lot of people are coming to that conclusion. I don’t why. This is the first time that human beings are going into space, and they weren’t sent there by a superpower. So, up until now, every human being that’s been fortunate to go to space — and you’re really talking about 500 people over a 60-year period of time — were sent there by the US government, the Chinese government, or the Russian government. And this is the first time that everyday people are going to be able to go in that direction.
Now, the mission in itself, we’re going into orbital space flight and that’s not easy. But in terms of all the things that we’ve accomplished in space up till now, it’s also not that extraordinary either. It’s just one step. But those first steps can lead to some amazing things. And I know I’ve said it before in other interviews, I truly believe it. If you look at Charles Lindbergh, solo flight across the Atlantic. One individual who got to experience that, and it was probably extremely costly. Twelve years later, Pan-Am announces the first commercial transatlantic service. Twelve years later, Orville and Wilbur Wright, the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Not impressive at all by today’s standards, not even close. Twenty years later, you had the first airborne ambulances. So, a lot of things can happen really quick after that first step.
So, I have no doubt that we’re going to have people bouncing around on the moon, families in space suits, and we will have Martian and lunar colonies, and everyone will jump in their X-wing fighter someday. That’s going to be a more interesting world. But we’ve got to deal with some of the big problems we have here on earth along the way, and that’s where St. Jude again comes into our mission.
Denver: I’ve talked to a lot of founders, and they always say that if you ever want to look at the culture of an organization, go back to the founding because it’s really much set there. And I think when you’re looking at all civilian space flight, the way you’re creating this really does set the die for all civilian flights into the future because that founding becomes so important.
Tell us again about the website, what people need to do to have a chance to help a wonderful organization and to take a trip into space.
Jared: So I invite everyone to join us. Just go to the inspiration4.com mission website, and you’re going to learn everything you’d ever want to know about the first civilian mission to space and how you could potentially have a seat on board.
So, again, inspiration4.com. You make a donation to an incredibly worthwhile cause. Help us shatter this goal of $200 million for such an important organization in St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and at the end of the month, you might be getting fitted for a space suit. And if you’re an entrepreneur or you’re even thinking about being one, you got a really no-cost way to give it a shot and tell the world about your idea. That’s also on inspiration4.com, using a Shift4Shop eCommerce platform, and you might also have a chance to join us on this mission to space later this month.
So, it’s a very cool way to potentially get strapped to a rocket and go to outer space. I invite everyone to check it out.
Denver: Well, fantastic. I want to thank you so much for being here today. This is such an uplifting and refreshing story, which we really need so badly in these difficult times. And I’m going to say this with a bit more emphasis than I do normally, and that is: “Safe travels, Jared.”
Jared: Thank you very much, Denver. I appreciate it.
- To learn more about the mission and its beneficiary, visit:
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