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Great entrepreneurs can get their ideas from anywhere. They look around and see a problem, then invent a solution that somebody will pay for. Well, Frederick Hutson wanted to do that same thing, find a great business idea, except he was in federal prison. Steve Henn reports on how he tried to disrupt a captive market.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: On the outside, Frederick Hutson had started a bunch of businesses - lawn care, window tinting, then marijuana distribution. That last business got him almost five years in a federal prison. Inside, he passed the time by going to the library every day to brainstorm his next business.
FREDERICK HUTSON: I would write how I want to build it. I would write who I want to hire, and I would get paper and draw lines, making spreadsheets by hand.
HENN: Like, physical paper spreadsheets?
HUTSON: Right, right, yeah, (laughter), right. So it was a tedious process, but I had time to do it.
HENN: And as time went on, he started to see lots of business opportunities in prison - calls were crazy expensive, getting money from family members was hard. But there was this one problem that kept bugging him - photos from his girlfriend. See, he wasn't getting any. She took photos on her phone, but he couldn't have a smartphone inside and printing pictures on the outside from a cellphone was a hassle, mailing them took time. So he started thinking about this problem like a businessman. He thought what if there was a website that let someone take a selfie, hit button and then, poof, mail a printed picture to someone on the inside?
So this whole idea basically started because you wanted to get pictures from your girlfriend, right?
HENN: Naked pictures?
HUTSON: (Laughter). Well, you can't get naked pictures in prison.
HENN: But photos? Sure. And this was Hutson's idea. And in 2011, when he finally got out, he decided to go for it. But Frederick Hutson couldn't just pack up and head to Silicon Valley and start pitching VCs. Instead, he was sent to a halfway house in Tampa, Fla., a place dominated by rules and regs. It was about as hostile to the entrepreneurial spirit as you can get. So Hutson started to build his new business on the sly. His first step was to call a photo lab and set up a conference call from inside the halfway house.
HUTSON: They had a rule, which is stupid, but they didn't let you have a cellphone. So I used to sneak my phone in, and I'll be in my bunk laying to the side and on this conference call with our vendor and the CEO and basically, I have to pitch him in this room, so (laughter).
HENN: How did you make that pitch?
HUTSON: So I told them - I said I'm looking to build an app that allow people to send pictures. They wasn't impressed by that. You know, there's hundreds of those already. What are you going to do that's different? And I said, well, we're going after inmates. And then he was like, well, how do you know this opportunity exists? I'm, like, worried that he's going say no if he knows that I've been in prison. So I take the leap and I tell him, I say, well, actually I know because I did four years in federal prison - almost five years in federal prison - for distribution of marijuana and the phone was just silent.
HENN: And then the CEO comes back and says this is the most interesting idea I've heard in years. So Frederick Hutson raises a few thousand dollars, sends out 500 postcards to inmates, and the response is overwhelming. Hundreds of family members start sending photos - brothers, sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins - and this was a revelation. Hutson had been thinking about the service as something for inmates, but he realized it meant as much for families on the outside to send these photos as it did for the inmates get them. Yvonne Haugavok's son Johnny is doing 15 years in federal prison. She's never been able to afford a visit, but she sends him pictures.
YVONNE HAUGAVOK: Oh, we love them. He love them. Oh, he loves them.
HENN: Does he have a favorite picture?
HAUGAVOK: Yeah, me standing at the stove (laughter) cooking. And he always tells me on Thanksgiving, I ain't there Mama, but find somebody that ain't got nothing to eat, and give them my plate. I say I'll do it, and I do it every year.
HENN: Frederick Hutson sent out those first postcards in 2012. Today, his company, Pidgeonly, serves tens of thousands of families. It offers other services like low-cost phone calls, and he's raised $3 million in funding. He employs other ex-cons, but none of this would've happened if he hadn't served time. So I had to ask.
Do you think going to prison was worth it? Do you think what you did was worth it?
HUTSON: Oh, man. (Laughter). You always ask good questions. I would say the people that I hurt, it wasn't worth it. But I was given an opportunity. I was given an opportunity to turn something around. I have to make this successful at this point or else it was all for nothing.
HENN: Steve Henn, NPR News.
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