November 5, 2014
Life hasn’t been all sunshine and daisies for Frederick Hutson, but despite the adversity he’s emerged victorious.
At age 19 Hutson launched and sold his first business while on active duty in the Air Force, exploring the thrill of entrepreneurial success. A few years later Hutson would find himself staring down a four-year prison term, and he got serious.
During his prison term, Hutson was moved to eight different prisons. Not only was it tough for him to stay in touch with his family, but his family found it increasingly frustrating to stay in touch with him.
He could have cashed out, given up, and gone home. But that’s not who Hutson is. Instead, he began to develop a business that included a cost-effective way for inmates to keep in touch with friends and family, rediscovering his entrepreneurial drive and heightening it to a whole new level.
Once he was released, he hit the pavement and didn’t stop until his idea, deftly named Pigeonly, was a reality. He raised money through family and friends, and joined the NewME Accelerator in San Francisco. Hutson was able to further develop his business model and ultimately pitch VCs alongside his partner, Alonzo Brooks, and officially launch in March 2012.
The Shakespearean-esque coincidence here is that Pigeonly is now in all federal prisons. Undoubtedly, being able to get into a heavily regulated market is one of the most gripping parts of Hutson’s story.
“I knew this was a problem that could be solved. I also knew it was a problem most people didn’t understand or have the courage to get into,” says Hutson. “It’s not sexy, or cool, but I’m passionate about trying to solve problems.”
Another big part of what drove him towards success was his time spent in the military. The enormity of the scenario is a bit overwhelming, but according to Hutson the best way to eat a whale is one bite at a time. That’s exactly what he did, and that’s something that requires discipline, order, and efficiency like only the military can offer.
For Hutson, the military was the most efficient organization he had ever seen, with thousands of people moving as one to power the whole. A lot of that culture has been directly transplanted into the business model at Pigeonly; they try to refrain from doing things absent of purpose.
“The Air Force was a great learning ground for me. It puts you in a situation where you’re forced to work with lots of people from different social and economic backgrounds – you learn to work with all types,” says Hutson. “It also teaches you to be highly efficient in everything you do.”
To be as efficient as possible, especially dealing with the miles of red tape affiliated with government organizations, Pigeonly is actually designed to completely circumvent the actual prison institution. They deal directly with the prisoners and their family members. In fact, Pigeonly doesn’t even deal with the institutions.
Currently, Pigeonly is calling Downtown Las Vegas home and headquarters. They have 13 people on staff and have hauled in a total of $2 million in seed money, but there’s a question begging to be answered here: why did they choose Vegas?
“One thing we’ve noticed is that this market can be a bit sleazy where expectations are low,” says Hutson. “We raised the bar very high when it comes to providing excellent customer service. We do it from 6 am to 6 pm, Monday through Saturday. Since we wanted to do it better than anybody else, who better to learn from than Zappos?”
The world outside the prison system is rapidly moving and evolving. Yet you have an entire group of people inside who aren’t moving at all. Pigeonly is about so much more than just sending communications; this is a way for inmates to maintain their lives outside the walls of prison.
“I like to be involved in things I can be the best at. I don’t want to be the number two or three guy,” says Hutson. “Looking at it I knew we could be the best in the space – deliver the best UX across the board and build the best product at the best possible price. Everything is an ‘and’, nothing is an ‘or’.”
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