Millions of Americans are in prison and they are connected to millions more, who love them. Most can expect to be rearrested after release, unfortunately. However, research indicates that those who maintain close ties to their family while incarcerated, “have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.” Frederick Hutson is helping inmates maintain that vital connection through his company, Pigeon.ly. Hutson’s life is far more entertaining than any movie currently out. The Air Force veteran is an unlikely tech entrepreneur who has worked on F-16 fighter jet engines out of Nellis Air Force Base and also business plans, from a prison cell. Hutson credits his time in the military with helping him to develop skills in planning and vision-casting. The school of hard knocks, however, gave him the inspiration to touch others with his entrepreneurial hustle.
Pigeon.ly dramatically decreases the cost of prison calls and allows families to send their incarcerated loved ones photos and other content from their cell phone, tablet or computer. Hutson started with Fotopigeon, a service that allows people to easily have pictures printed, mailed and shipped to their incarcerated loved one. Telepigeon provides family and friends with phone numbers local to the prison where their loved one is being held, which significantly lowers calling costs. The challenges that inmates face keeping in touch with their families was never simply theoretical, for Hutson. After his time in the Air Force, a friend told Hutson about his marijuana smuggling business. Always an entrepreneur, Hutson thought he could find a more efficient ways to transport and in time, began using FedEx, UPS and other services, ultimately netting him around $500,000 annually. That led to a 51 month prison term.
While incarcerated Hutson became personally and painfully aware of the challenges prisoners face. Even the basic desire to say hello to a friend or tell a family member that you love them is a monumental task. There had to be a better way. Hutson worked on business plans while in prison and read business publications, whenever he could get his hands on them. He made spreadsheets by hand, doing whatever it took to create the solution that he and so many others needed. When Hutson was released to a halfway house, he and cofounder Alfonzo Brooks hit the ground running. The pair picked up 2,000 customers by directly mailing inmates, informing them of their services. The grind was paying off but having been locked up for a while, Hutson needed a crash course in the latest aspects of tech and growth. He was able to receive the help he needed when he was accepted to NewMe, a Silicon Valley-based accelerator for underrepresented minorities.
Clear vision, work ethic and discipline are all skills that an entrepreneur can learn from military service. Life, however, teaches a host of other lessons. What we do with those lessons is critical and in Hutson’s case, he built a business that is helping to make a difference. Frederick Hutson’s is a veteran, entrepreneur and a Black man who is uniquely in tune to the challenges faced by the most vulnerable and forgotten. Pigeon.ly is a company, for sure and yet it represents so much more.