Ever since he was a child, Frederick Hutson has had an eye for business. When he was just 19, he started a window-tinting business that he later sold for $50,000. At 21 years of age, he saw his friend that was struggling with an illegal marijuana business and realised how to traffic more efficiently across borders by using shipping containers and vacuum-sealing.
He was too confident. Hutson ended up being imprisoned for trafficking two tons of marijuana. “They put me in handcuffs and arraigned me at the courthouse just down the street from where I sit now,” tells Hutson. “I don’t know that I’ve changed, because I still have a high tolerance for risk and a desire to solve problems creatively. But I have matured. I feel like I was ahead of my time,” he said, referring to the recent legalisation of marijuana in many American states. “I went to jail for this. For me, it’s a little ironic.”
He ended up spending four years in prison. For many, criminal records permanently destroy their ability to become employed, and often spells further prison terms due to this: “I know the population I’m building this business for, and that’s my advantage,” Hutson tells of those 2.3 million inmates and their loved ones. “You put all those people together, and that’s a large market. But more importantly, I saw first-hand that inmates who stayed in touch had a better chance of not going back to jail after they got out.”
“Connectivity with the outside world is crucial to the fight against prison recidivism”, tells David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Nearly 95% of prisoners are coming home, so what kind of people do we want back in society?” he says. “A successful re-entry is always linked to how well an inmate kept in touch with the outside world. To the extent that a company (like Pigeonly) can mitigate the harsh and stressful world of prison and give people that sense of self through contact, that is very positive.”
However, Hutson spent much of his time in prison writing up business plans and came up with an idea to make prison calls cheaper. “I was in jail for most of my 20s. I wasn’t a part of a lot of things that others get to be. But I’ve always been a highly, highly focused person,” Hutson said.
Pigeonly, unlike most other start-ups, received $1 million in seed funding major Silicon Valley names such as Lotus creator Mitch Kapor. “Frederick is a stellar example of entrepreneurs who pursue business opportunities that come out of their own experience,” says Kapor, of Kapor Capital at the Kapor Centre for Social Impact in Oakland. “You could hang out at Stanford University until the end of time and not find someone like Frederick, which is why it is so important to cast a wide net when it comes to funding,” he tells. “But simply put, he was one of the best founder presentations I’d seen in a long time.”