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.”