Frederick Hutson spent more than four years in prison after he was busted for drug trafficking. Police arrested him at his Las Vegas mail store, where he had been mailing marijuana to his Florida business via FedEx, UPS and DHL.
Hutson began working on his new ideas soon after he started his 51-month sentence in 2007, at age 24.
“I did my time that way,” he says. “While I was there I just saw how grossly inefficient the prison system was and there was just so many opportunities.”
A big problem for the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S. is trying to keeping in touch with friends and family on the outside. There’s no internet in prison, so all communication is through mail or the phone. Calls are often expensive and especially long distance calls. Now-a-days people on the outside lead increasingly digitized lives, write less and don’t get around to sending photos for weeks on end.
“It was a pain point I experienced firsthand,” says Hutson. “I’m very close with my family and I knew they cared about me but even with knowing how much they cared about me, they were still sometimes unable to send me photos.”
Transitioning from digital to analog is the problem Hutson set out to solve with his business Pigeonly. Many people don’t want to sit down, write and then find a mailbox to send a letter to an inmate. An email or text is simple and much more regularly used. This is where the light bulb moment came for Hutson. What if you created a website that printed out emails, texts or photos from your computer, Facebook or Instagram and mailed them for you in the plain white envelopes these correctional institutions favored?
Pigeonly was born. Pigeonly is a platform that centralizes the state-level prison databases, making it a quick search to find where an inmate is in the system and giving love ones an easy way to communicate with them.
“People get lost in the system all the time,” he explains. “We have attorneys contacting us trying to find their clients.”
Ironically, Pigeonly got its wheels moving, using the same dying mail system the app is created to help users avoid. “We identified 500 people and sent them greeting cards saying here’s a product people can use to send you photographs. Three or four days after our cards landed, we started seeing people show up on our website creating accounts and sending photos, so we kept doing that,” says Hutson.
Hutson says getting funding for the business wasn’t easy. “It can be hard because as an entrepreneur, you feel like it’s your baby and when you talk to someone about your baby and they go, no that’s whack, I’m not interested. You can’t take that personal, you have to be able to talk to the next person with the same intensity and fervor,” he says.
Convincing investors to write a check for the first million was the hardest. “I probably talked to about 60 investors, and in our seed round we had six, so that gives you an idea of how many no’s you had to get to the six yes’s,” he says.
To date, Pigeonly is a $3 million dollar a year company, who employs over 20 people. Hutson says, about a third of the company’s workforce are people with criminal histories.