Solving Problems Carolyn Sun  | October 11, 2018

From Inmate to Innovator, How One Entrepreneur Now Helps Prisoners’ Families Stay in Touch

Frederick Hutson kept fielding the same awkward question from investors: “How do you know?”

How do you know, that is, that friends and families of inmates struggle to communicate and share photos with their loved ones in prison? Hutson was wary about explaining to prospective backers that he had spent more than four years in prison for drug trafficking.

“In the very beginning, I was hesitant to even talk about my background,” says Hutson, now CEO of Las Vegas-based Pigeonly, a subscription-based service that offers communications tools to the friends and families of inmates. However, a business mentor would later convince him that, as he recalled during an interview with Free Enterprise, “you can’t diffuse a bomb that already went off—just own it. The people who can see value in what you are doing will see value in what you’re doing.”

Indeed, the solutions Pigeonly offers sprung from the pain points Hutson and his family experienced while he was in the correctional system. For instance, Hutson was transferred five times during his four years in prison, which made it difficult for his family to locate him, as he says the state inmate database was disjointed and decentralized. Moreover, all communication occurred via snail mail or phone calls, which were prohibitively expensive for his family and rendered picture-sharing a challenge.

“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,” Hutson told Forbes.

While still in prison, Hutson began mapping out an initial business idea intended to make it easier for families to share photos back and forth with inmates. He sketched out a website for a photo-printing service for friends and family of inmates and drafted a rough business plan. After he was released in 2007, Hutson moved into a halfway house and scraped together money from his family to hire a freelancer to help him breathe life into his envisioned web service.

Hutson would later be accepted into the NewME startup accelerator program based in Miami, which works with minority entrepreneurs. Mentors in the program helped him expand his services, and today, Pigeonly subscribers can pay a monthly fee for wide range of communication services, including sending and printing photos, letters, postcards and articles from the internet, as well as generating a local, prison-approved phone number. There’s also a free centralized inmates search database.

One of his main challenges, while trying to raise funds, was the lack of knowledge about the prison system. “Not many investors were familiar with the pain points in prison,” he explains.

Pigeonly has soared since officially launching in 2013. The company has raised a total of $5.1 million in funding so far and is currently valued at around $15 million, according to Hutson. The company now has customers in 88 countries and is adding 400 to 500 new users per day.

Still, Hutson says he measures success based on “the number of people we can impact and the amount of dollars we can save” for inmates and their families.

He also has developed an appreciation for leaning into—not running away from—what makes him unique as an entrepreneur, and he encourages other founders to embrace the same lesson.

“Don’t look at being underrepresented as a disadvantage,” Hutson says. “Because you come from a unique and diverse background, it gives you a unique and diverse perspective that you can build a solution around. That is why people will invest in you.”