From behind bars to the boardroom
After serving time in federal prison, Frederick Hutson started a business to connect inmates with their friends and loved ones. He never imagined just how swiftly Pigeonly would take off.
Freddy has always been someone who sees opportunity and takes action.
As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, he fixed fans and refrigerators, and started a window tinting business right after high school. But, at 21 years old, he found himself in trouble with the law.
Serving a four year sentence in federal prison, Freddy felt firsthand how difficult and expensive it is for people in jail to stay in contact with their loved ones. And he saw an opportunity.
Freddy started brainstorming in his cell. He sketched a website and started dreaming about an app. He made spreadsheets and wrote his first business plan.
Most inmates in the US are not serving life sentences—most will reenter society, and they are much more successful if they maintain a strong support network of family and loved ones. Most inmates also have young children, and the burden to stay in touch falls on the spouses and children of those behind bars.
After his release, Freddy partnered with his good friend, Alfonzo Brooks, to start building Pigeonly, a suite of tools and services to help people stay in touch with loved ones behind bars.
“When we first started, I was in a halfway house,” Freddy says.
That’s when he heard about NewME Accelerator, a 12-week program for African American, Latino, and female founders—groups often underrepresented among tech entrepreneurs. Freddy and Alfonzo applied and were accepted into the February 2013 accelerator class.
The NewME Accelerator
After being accepted, Freddy flew from Tampa, Florida, to San Francisco, California, to live and work with the other founders in his cohort. For the intensive three month program, they worked tirelessly on their ideas with mentors, experienced entrepreneurs, product experts, and investors.
“NewME helped me look at things in a different way. It plants the seed that you can build something massive. Going through the accelerator taught me the difference between having a product and owning a sustainable business, something way bigger than you.”
NewME has helped 250 startups through their accelerator program in San Francisco and their pop-up events around the country. Google for Entrepreneurs is proud to be NewME’s first supporter and the presenting sponsor of NewME Accelerator since 2011. Google sponsors NewME’s operational budget to grow the accelerator and pop-up events, and provides mentors throughout the program.
“Google realizes that entrepreneurship is diverse. They have been our biggest supporter,” says NewME founder Angela Benton.
“NewME sends a signal that being an entrepreneur isn’t out of reach for minority founders,” Freddy says.
“There’s a support network that will help you do it. It tells people, ‘Yes, this is reachable!’ There is so much opportunity in those communities to solve problems. The mentors at NewME told me not to be ashamed of my background, but to embrace my history.”
The NewME program culminates with pitching at a demo day for local investors. With his unique perspective, his great progress in the NewME program, and Pigeonly’s vision for this previously untapped market, Freddy’s pitch impressed investors. He raised a million dollars on demo day.
Pigeonly spreads its wings
Fotopigeon, Pigeonly’s first offering, is a photo-printing service for the friends and family of inmates. With the Fotopigeon app, users can take photos on their cell phone and have them printed and mailed directly to their loved one. The team ships around 4,000 photos per week.
With the success of Fotopigeon, Freddy and his team then branched out into new ways of connecting families and friends. Most federal inmates are sent to jails in other states and phone calls to their families are long distance. Prison phone providers often charge exorbitant rates that make staying in touch very difficult. Telepigeon generates a local number for federal inmates, connecting them to their loved ones’ phone numbers at a steeply discounted rate. “No one had ever used technology to solve this problem,” Freddy says.
Now headquartered in Las Vegas’ Downtown Project and operating with 11 full-time employees, Pigeonly’s revenue is growing 30 percent month-over-month, with no plans of slowing down. Freddy has big plans for the team, and says they’ve only scratched the surface of the opportunities in this market. Seven million Americans are currently on probation, parole, or correctional supervision. Pigeonly dreams of also serving as a resource for people who are rebuilding a life after leaving prison, who need to secure credit, employment, or a place to live.
“I am a builder. My creative outlet isn’t painting or music, but seeing problems and building solutions,” Freddy says. “I get a lot of satisfaction from families who say we’re making a difference for their lives. These are real people with real issues and we’re solving those issues every day.”
All hail the global taxi app
After unsuccessfully trying to catch a cab one night, Tallis Gomes got an idea that would grow into Easy Taxi, a global company that’s making it easier to get a ride.
Tallis had never heard the word “startup” when he decided to attend the first ever Startup Weekend in Brazil in 2011.
On his way to the event, after trying for more than half an hour to hail a taxi, Tallis became frustrated. That experience sparked the idea that would become a transportation service used by millions of people around the world.
“Waiting really bothers me because it’s about our time, and time is the most valuable asset in the world,” Tallis says.
“Startup Weekend completely changed my life and how I look at the world.”
Startup Weekend, powered by Google for Entrepreneurs, is a 54-hour boot camp that allows anyone to turn their idea into a reality. Attendees arrive on Friday night, present ideas, form teams, and then work tirelessly through the weekend. They do research, interview potential customers, and build working prototypes of their product, with the help of Startup Weekend staff and mentors. On Sunday night, the teams regroup and pitch their new company to a panel of judges.
In 2011, Startup Weekend hosted their first ever event in Brazil. Not only was it a pivotal moment for Tallis, but he says it also brought the concept of startups and entrepreneurship to forefront of Brazilian culture.
“Startup Weekend kick-started a movement in Brazil,” Tallis says.
Though he and his team were initially working on another concept, they pivoted directions after Tallis’ frustrating taxi experience. They worked all weekend to pitch their idea on Sunday night, when Tallis and his team won the competition and launched Easy Taxi. The mobile app allows users to request a taxi with the tap of a button, connecting drivers and passengers in a much easier way.
“Startup Weekend is powerful. They teach you to get out of the building and validate your idea with real people. In three days, you actually make something. It teaches you how to be an entrepreneur,” Tallis says.
The Google for Entrepreneurs partnership with UP Global helps double the reach of UP programs including Startup Weekend, Startup Next, and Startup Digest. Through the partnership, UP Global will bring their programs for aspiring entrepreneurs to more than 1,000 thriving communities around the world by 2016.
“Our partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs has allowed us to exponentially scale our impact around the world,” says UP Global CEO Marc Nager.
“Our vision of what the world can truly be if everyone has access and opportunity aligns closely with Google as an entire organization.”
After their Startup Weekend win, Tallis and his team went to work. Unable to find early investors, Tallis sold his own car to bootstrap the company. When they struggled to find new drivers for the Easy Taxi platform, Tallis and his team headed to local gas stations to start recruiting.
“Being an entrepreneur is like having to to kill a lion every day. Everyday you're solving a big problem that could fail or could be the biggest opportunity of your life,” says the founder.
And the hard work has paid off. Easy Taxi quickly gained traction in Brazil, and is now operating in 162 cities across Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. In emerging markets where it can often be difficult to quickly and safely hail a cab, more than five million people use the service. The company has 1,300 full-time employees and has raised more than $27 million.
In three short years, Tallis Gomes went from not knowing the term “startup” to running a wildly successful company making waves around the world.
“Entrepreneurs are the people who get things done. I was a just guy who had a dream. And Easy Taxi fulfills my dream to make a difference in society,” he says.
3D printing sparked a gem of an idea
Tanya Damm Bokobza uses new technology to recreate jewelry from just a photograph. Now people around the world use Morpheus to make custom jewelry and regain their lost family heirlooms.
After running her own agency and launching two startups, Tanya had designed across industries from semiconductors to virtual reality to medical devices. She had succeeded in nearly every aspect of the design world. Then Tanya discovered 3D printing. She immediately fell in love with the new technology and knew that she wanted to build her next business around it.
“The powerful niche of 3D printing is in making one-of-a-kind objects. I chose to start with recreating rare and heirloom jewelry, and using 3D printing technology to print them in precious metals,” she says. Tanya built Morpheus, a platform that enables users to recreate a lost or desired piece of jewelry based on a just a photo.
The company matches clients with top designers around the world, who estimate the price and then provide digital 3D models of the commissioned pieces, which clients can then modify and approve. Finally, the custom piece is printed in silver, gold, or other fine metals, and shipped to the client.
“Making custom jewelry is an old industry that really benefits from the intricacies and precision of 3D printing,” Tanya says. “At Morpheus, we are dealing with magic!”
“We want to help people bridge that gap from a static image to a real product, with no need for a design background.”
With the help of programs at Campus Tel Aviv, Tanya built a thriving network of artisans, combining the innovation of 3D printing and the craftsmanship of jewelry design. In fact, Tanya applied to Campus Tel Aviv's weeklong mentorship and training program by submitting a piece of vintage jewelry that she recreated. With her incredible design background and mastery of 3D printing, Tanya was accepted to the program.
Campus Tel Aviv
With the highest startups per capita of any country in the world, Israel is often called “Startup Nation.” And Campus Tel Aviv sits in the heart of it all. Campus is Google’s space for entrepreneurs to learn, connect, and build companies that will change the world. Entrepreneurs get unparalleled access to mentorship and training led by their local startup community, experienced entrepreneurs, and teams from Google.
Google Launchpad is a weeklong pre-incubation program at Campus Tel Aviv, where early stage startup founders like Tanya get training and intensive mentorship on topics like user interface, product strategy, marketing, and how to pitch to investors.
“The programs at Campus Tel Aviv helped us achieve rapid progress in a very short time, using a lot of Google’s resources and the deep experience of the mentors,” Tanya says.
When not traveling around the world meeting with her investors, new Morpheus designers, and members of the jewelry industry, Tanya bases Morpheus out of Campus Tel Aviv, where she works remotely with her network of global jewelry design experts.
“The Campus Tel Aviv coworking area gives me exposure to other startup founders so I can brainstorm with people like me and opposite from me, and get fresh perspectives.”
“Google is very open about helping out if you need anything. It is definitely not a normal office environment.”
Like many great entrepreneurs before her, Tanya and the Morpheus team are starting small, but dreaming big. “We chose to start with the jewelry industry, but imagine being able to make anything you see in an image.”