At age 23, Frederick Hutson was imprisoned for drug trafficking. He was running a marijuana distribution organization with “operations” across two countries and four states. Essentially, his first entrepreneurial journey was an illegal business but it honed his business skills.
He also did not allow his situation to define him. While in prison, Hutson channeled his entrepreneurial spirit into positive use. He started Pigeonly, a platform that provides a host of services to keep communication lines between inmates and their families open.
He was inspired to launch Pigeonly because of the pain and frustration of the inefficient communication system used in prisons. There are over 2.3 million people in prisons in the United States. Their loved ones do not readily have access to them in terms of communication.
“It was a pain point I experienced firsthand,” Hutson told Forbes. “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 noted that when he started Pigeonly, he had no idea what it took to build and scale a company in this space. Nonetheless, he knew people did not have an easy way to share photos with their incarcerated loved ones and found the cost of $15 on a single phone call to loved ones ridiculous.
“So, we set out to build a solution. Our first stab at this wasn’t very pretty and barely worked, but it was good enough to validate our idea and gave us a foundation to build on. We then shifted our focus to the weaker areas of the business- people, product, and process, so we could better navigate the twists and turns, challenges and risks transitioning our startup to a growth-stage company,” he noted on his Linkedin page.
Pigeonly has grown to become one of America’s largest independent inmate services providers, saving families over $2 million a year in phone fees. What is more, the platform also has customers in 88 countries. It has connected more than 300,000 incarcerated individuals to over 1.5 million people “on the outside”, according to Verizon.
“Needless to say, we’re excited about the new heights we’ll reach in the future and extremely proud of what we have built and accomplished to date,” Hutson, who is also an Air Force veteran, noted in 2017. “As entrepreneurs, we have the opportunity to shape the future. To turn that rosy-coloured image in our minds of what we will build and the impact it’ll make in the world into reality. Be prepared to play the long game, and with time and sacrifice and you’ll achieve success, whatever that may mean to you.”
Pigeonly grew to have sub-brands like Fotopigeon, which sends digital prints to inmates and Telepigeon which lowers phone call rates through VoIP, according to Forbes. In 2017, Pigeonly announced that it was in line to make $1 million in revenue in its first year following $2 million in seed financing from Silicon Valley investors.
In 2019, Pigeonly served 58,000 inmates and 76,000 loved ones in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and D.C., Verizon reported.