Frederick Hutson, a Brooklyn born businessman began work in the United States Air Force after finishing school When the Air Force decided to downsize in 2006, Hutson was offered an early and honourable discharge. After this, he bought and sold several small local businesses including window tinting, cell phone accessories, — then a friend told him about his marijuana-smuggling business.
Hutson thought he could improve the existing service that the business was offering: “I thought I was smarter; I felt I was just fixing a business problem.” Soon, the business was making approximately $500,000 a year: “At first, I just wanted to make enough to start a few new legitimate companies. Then it was just about having fun. I was 21. Dumb. One of the UPS drivers rolled on us. The DEA showed up.”
The stigma that comes with serving a prison term cannot be denied. Hutson himself experienced it after his sentence when he tried to rent an apartment in a Las Vegas building. However, those being released from prison nowadays “don’t face quite the same thing that people did 20 or 30 years ago, perhaps just because there are so many people cycling in and out of jail now,” says Paul Wright, former and founder and editor of Prison Legal News in Lake Worth. “A lot of former prisoners try and start companies, some of which are aimed at the prison population,” he says. “But more than the most, the tech industry doesn’t seem to care as much about your background. It’s mainly, ‘Do you have a business plan, and can you program?’ If the answer’s yes, many are happy to hear you out.”
Another major Hutson investor, Erik Moore of Base Ventures, encouraged the Hutson’s business venture: “I got a lot of, ‘I can’t get my mind around the fact that I’d be investing in a felon.’ But in the end, others saw that I may be the best person to help this population,” he says. “As is true in business, showing people numbers is what did the trick.”
Hutson revealed how to organise a mail campaign ( letters are the only way to communicate with prisoners). Pigeonly’s Fotopigeon service (50 cents per print) got a remarkably high response rate of 25%. Since launching in early 2013, he’s expanded that business from sending 1,000 to 10,000 photos a week. Pigeonly’s latest addition, the Telepigeon phone service works by created a phone number local to the prisoner’s family member, who is then notified of the number by post. When it is called, it is automatically transferred to the phone of a family member despite their location, reducing the cost of every call from 23 cents to the local rate of 6-cent.
“I’ve helped kids talk to their dads and moms and saved real people real money in the past year, and that’s humbling and motivating,” says Hutson. “Not for what I did before, which was stupid and hurt my mom and my family. But I enjoy being an example now,” he says. “In the black and brown community, people don’t knock on certain doors because they think they shouldn’t. We usually don’t have uncles who majored in computer science, so we start barbershops and mobile car washes, which are fine. But I’m here to say, you can knock on this door, too.”