Some of Silicon Valley’s best ideas come about through unusual circumstances. (Case in point: Facebook, which has its origins as a classmate ratings site.) But perhaps one of the more profound examples of this comes from Frederick Hutson, who cooked up his winning concept while behind bars.
Hutson always had a proclivity for business, launching anything from a window-tinting concept out of high school to opening a cell phone store. But his misstep came in 2007 at the age of 24, when he decided to help a friend create a more streamlined plan for marijuana distribution from Mexico to Florida through his mail service business. Though he received an honorable discharge from the Air Force and had no previous criminal record, Hutson was sentenced to 51 months in prison.
It was during his time as an inmate that Hutson came up with the idea for Fotopigeon, an online platform that lets friends and families of inmates upload photos to send through the postal service for 50 cents per print. As Hutson explained to the New York Times, prison officials often refuse anything from third party companies like Snapfish or Shutterfly “because they don’t like anything that doesn’t come in a plain white envelope.”

The concept seemed simple, but Hutson believed something as basic as helping inmates feel more connected to the outside world was a chance to reduce recidivism.

“Isolation is the worst thing for an inmate,” Hutson said. “It makes it hard for him to rebuild his life when he gets out.”

As an insider, Hutson knew that the average prisoner had just $300 a year to spend on goods at the prison commissary and for phone calls. (Families of inmates spend an additional $600 annually on their loved one.) Hutson believed that if he could market to prisoners directly and get 10 percent of their family and friends to send 10 photos a month (plus provide inexpensive phone calls), he could bring in $22 million in revenue within three years.

This insider knowledge proved to be a huge asset.

“I thought my record would prevent people from doing business with us, but it was just the opposite,” Hutson said. “I had domain expertise.”

While honing his concept at NewME, a San Francisco-based accelerator that focuses on underrepresented demographics in the tech world, Hutson and his investors realized that the platform could provide much more to the untapped market of 2.3 million inmates across the country. And so Pigeonly was born. 

Pigeonly now operates as an online data platform that not only offers photo-sharing services through Fotopigeon, but also cheap phone calls for inmates through its telecommunications arm, Telepigeon. How does it do it? The company partnered up with Internet phone-service providers to give inmates local access numbers that can be used to make long-distance calls — reducing rates from 23 centers per minute to 6 cents.

But perhaps even more important than its two main services, Pigeonly has centralized the more than 35 million pieces of data on inmates that are dispersed in the fractured public records system across more than 3,000 prison institutions, according to the company site. While inmates are frequently shuffled around in the system, addresses are often lost or never updated. Customers can use the platform as a directory to look up an inmate by name, regardless of address.

Pigeonly has also opened up its application programming interface (API), which allows developers to use the data to build more products directed toward the unusual consumer market and their networks. As Hutson points out, incarceration impacts more than just the inmate, affecting a prisoner’s network of seven to 10 people on average. Communication with friends and family is proven to reduce recidivism, according to Hutson, and part of his goal of Pigeonly is to better understand who is affected by prison.

By opening up the difficult-to-reach market, he just might find out.

MORE: New York Enlists Venture Capitalists To Help Keep People Out of Prison