Frederick Hutson looked like he had everything going for him: he had a clean record, built some businesses, served in the U.S. Air Force and had been discharged honorably. However, things took a major turn for the worse in 2007, when at a mere 24 years of age, Hutson was caught trafficking marijuana with his friends and sentenced to more than four years in prison. During his 51-month prison stint, Hutson recognized that there were huge inefficiencies in the prison system when it came to prisoners keeping in contact with their loved ones. From there, he came up with Pigeonly, a photo-sharing service that prints photos uploaded from a cell phone, computer or tablet and then ships them to any prison in the world. Pricing is set at an affordable 50 cents per photo and shipping is free.
Having raised $2 million in seed funding from Silicon Valley investors, Pigeonly is set to have $1 million in revenue in only its first year since being accepted into an accelerator, mostly through its sub-brands Fotopigeon and Telepigeon, according to Forbes. So, not only did Hutson incredibly spend four years in prison, he also managed to quickly build a company upon his release, raised millions of dollars in funding for it and now has it on track to being profitable in an age when most startups have no clue how they’re even going to make money. Needless to say, there are some valuable lessons to be learned here. After reading his story, I knew I had to track Frederick Hutson down for an interview.
Tell us what it was like being sentenced to four years in prison after having such a clean record.
“I was so naive, because when I went to court I figured it would be a slap on the wrist being that I didn’t have a previous record and it wouldn’t be a big deal. When I heard the sentence come down, I was shocked even though the sentence was relatively short for what most people in federal prison have. I think the average time for federal is between 5-10, so I was slightly under 5 years. At the time, I couldn’t even wrap my brain around being in prison for that long. I couldn’t fathom what it was like to be somewhere away from your family, away from everyone you know, you go into this environment and you know that you can’t leave for a certain period of time. Even today, I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing five years from now.”
What did you do during prison to stay abreast of all the technological advancements and trends in the business world?
“I read everything I could get my hands on. Anytime I could get my hands on an Inc. magazine or Entrepreneur magazine, Enterprise. Wall Street Journal’s technology section was very helpful; it always talked about companies that were doing things, and a lot of times they talked about companies that were further along and not just startups. So all those things I started reading about, even though I was in the sidelines it got my brain to think a certain way and allowed me to really see what was possible through technology and what could be done through software. From there, I just started thinking about what problems I could solve. The low hanging fruit was a problem I was personally experiencing during that time. So I thought, ‘Well, the problems I’m experiencing right now are all based around communication and things just being inefficient.’ This is what technology does; it helps make things more efficient. So why not leverage that and build something that can automate processes in an environment where everything is typically manually done?”
What types of people did you meet in prison? Were you able to find a group of entrepreneurial thinkers like yourself?
“Absolutely, that’s all that’s there! You have two types of guys in prison: You have the guy who is just doing his time and he’s just waiting for the day for him to come to leave. He probably makes up about 10 percent, maybe a little less than that, between 5-10 percent of the population. The 90-95 percent are all entrepreneurial thinkers. When I say entrepreneurial thinkers, I’m talking about the type of people who see opportunity in a lot of things they look at, whether they direct it in a positive or negative way — most of it was in a negative way, which is why they’re in prison in the first place. But they saw an opportunity to have some sort of financial gain and they took it, whether it was right or wrong. So it wasn’t just guys on the street corners, there was also guys who were doing things closer to what I was doing, moving tons of drugs from one place to another. Then you have guys from white collar crimes, some of them CEOs and lawyers of Fortune 500 companies. So you had a wide range of people that you came across in federal prison, from the white collar guys who are worth $100 million to the guys in the street corners who didn’t graduate high school. Most of the conversations I had with the guys were their business ideas, whether it was a barbershop, or a technology company, or some sort of a platform for fitness. It’s a gamut of ideas all over the map from guys who are thinking of another way to ‘hustle’ once they’re released that they won’t wind them back in prison. I think the big disconnect is there’s really no mechanism to transform the idea into something tangible. I think that’s where most people fall by the wayside and end up going back to the same things that they did before that got them in prison. I was lucky enough to figure out things like what an accelerator was, learning how important your network is, and refining my raw ideas into something that can be turned into a viable business model.”
There is more! Read the full interview at NextShark