Pigeonly CEO Frederick Hutson Wants To Democratize Prison Data And Help Other Entrepreneurs To Reform Criminal Justice: Mogul Watch
This is the first in a Moguldom original series that shines the light on the founders featured on MogulWatch, our comprehensive list of startups that have received venture capitalist funding. Find out how much money they have received from whom, and news and data about their company.
A former Air Force aircraft electrician and former inmate of the Department of Corrections, Frederick Hutson used his personal experience in prison to solve a problem for millions of people — how to communicate with their loved ones who are behind bars.
Hutson is the co-founder and CEO of Pigeonly, a tech startup launched in late 2012 that is marketed as a simple, affordable way to stay in touch with inmates from any phone, tablet, or computer.
A resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, Hutson used the entrepreneurial skills that he learned trafficking marijuana across four states and two countries to develop his business.
Now Hutson is looking ahead through a much wider lens, working on applications for blockchain in the criminal justice system, and particularly applications that democratize or decentralize criminal justice data.
How (can we) be more disruptive in the criminal justice space? What is it going to take for the next level of justice reform to take place? The ($180-billion) prison industry is … one of the only sectors not data-driven. That’s unheard of in the rest of the business world. We have a goal to be the first company to accomplish justice reform by … building a platform that other entrepreneurs in the industry can use to bring about real change.” — Frederick Hutson, Pigeonly co-founder and CEO.
Pigeonly focuses on markets that are overlooked and underserved, particularly in minority communities. The company has received more than $5 million from five funding rounds.
Frederick Hutson spoke to Moguldom about Pigeonly, which is featured on Moguldom’s MogulWatch, a comprehensive list of startups by founders of color who have received venture capitalist funding.
Moguldom: Why did you start Pigeonly?
Frederick Hutson: It was because of my personal experience. I spent five years in prison for the distribution of marijuana. It was during those long five years I noticed that there’s a huge population of people to which no one’s paying attention. I saw how expensive and challenging (it is) to stay connected with our loved ones on the outside. So, our company was born out of my own experience and me trying to solve a problem that I had.
Moguldom: What are some notable wins you’ve had for Pigeonly?
Frederick Hutson: One of our wins was rather early. We had scrapped together the first working version of the product. We ran into a marketing problem, you know — one of the nuisances of bootstrapping. It was tough for us to get the word out. We came up with the idea to index all the public records to let us know who’s in prison and the background information about location, area, and release, etc. We then sent letters to the inmates directly on the inside. They could then tell their loved ones on the outside, so they would in turn set up accounts with us. We just did that on a hunch, and we end up having a significant response rate to our direct mail campaign — almost 100 times what direct mail response rate typically is for businesses. This was the first time we saw the product go from zero to 100. People were going to the accounts and uploading pictures, sending money and connecting more with their loved ones.
Moguldom: Sounds like immediate success.
Frederick Hutson: It was an early win, and we started to grow, but it wasn’t nearly the amount of growth that we would need to take the company to the next level. So, we began looking at other resources and learned how technology accelerators work. We started applying to a lot of them in and out of Silicon Valley. And, you know no one was giving us a shot until this one small accelerator that was based in San Francisco at the time, NewMe. They reviewed our application, talked with us via phone and invited us out to meet with them one week before the program began. We took a leap of faith, and we packed a bag and a one-way ticket. We went through the program and at the end, we were the only ones to raise money. We raised right at $1 million in capital to get the business going. So that was that was a big moment because that was a time of transition from just a couple people bootstrapping on our own to something that was validated, not only by our customers using it but also by the business community, as something that was viable.
Moguldom: What are your thoughts on building a good team?
Frederick Hutson: That is probably the most critical thing you must do and the most difficult thing to do. Building a team happens in stages. Where first you have the mindset, you must do everything yourself, and you must be involved in every aspect of the business and in many cases, that’s true for startups. However, then as you start to grow and mature, you must realize that same mentality will stifle your company’s growth. You will become the bottleneck if you must be involved in every single decision that is made or in everything that is happening across the company. You must be able to identify and bring on a team around you. You want to be able to trust them and empower them to be able to make decisions on their own that’s in line with your vision, and that’s not easy to do. However, you must learn to build a culture where it is OK for your leaders to make decisions. It may not be what you would choose to do or may not turn out to be the best decision made. For our culture, people feel empowered to make decisions and if those decisions do not necessarily work out, you learn from it and move on to the next thing. This is important to cultivate because you don’t want people to shy away from making bold decisions because they feel like if they don’t get it right their job is in jeopardy.
Moguldom: How do you keep the creativity flowing so you can create the best product and services for your clients?
Frederick Hutson: It’s really about the leadership and the culture you build, which goes back to what I mentioned earlier. When you build a culture that mistakes aren’t punished, you have a culture where everyone is open and has a voice. It allows people the comfort to be able to be who they are, and this allows ideas to flourish. We do this also by having a meeting once a week with all the departments where we have a whole team together. This has sparked a lot of the ideas and opportunities that we can pursue.
Moguldom: What do the next five years look like for Pigeonly?
Frederick Hutson: One of the things that we’re excited about is what we can do and how we can be more disruptive in the criminal justice space. What is it going to take for the next level of justice reform to take place? How can technology push that and make it a reality? One thing we’ve been working on in the background is applications for blockchain in the criminal justice system, and particularly applications that democratize or decentralize criminal justice data. People don’t know the prison industry is a $180-billion-plus industry in this nation. However, it is one of the only sectors not data-driven. So, they’re not able to look at data to be able to measure what’s not effective, what’s working, what’s not working, and that’s unheard of in the rest of the business world. This industry shouldn’t be any different. We found because justice in this country is primarily local, you have all these local agencies recording data in different ways and different formats, and it’s very disjointed. A project we’re excited about is tying all that together and taking what we started with as the data for the next level of innovative products we build. We even want to leverage data and technology for background checks.
Moreover, we have a goal to be the first company to accomplish justice reform by democratizing this information by building a platform that other entrepreneurs in the industry can use to bring about real change.
Moguldom: What do you think people will say about your leadership in your organization years from now?
Frederick Hutson: They would say I’m very results driven. My leadership style is you have all the flexibility in the world on how to get something done if the result is there. I spend more time articulating the results that I’m trying to accomplish, or the results I want to achieve, more than the path which one should take to get there. What I found is if I’m doing my job correctly, I should be surrounding myself with people that are smarter than me. I should always be looking to make sure that I’m not the most intelligent person in the room. Because we have a diverse group of people in our organization, we have a broad and diverse approach to solving problems. I believe they would say I’m clear about articulating the results we’re trying to achieve, and then allowing and empowering people to approach the goals.
I would think some would also say that I’m very direct. Not only am I direct, I require people, especially in our leadership roles, to be direct. Because of my experiences and things I’ve been through, I’ve realized it’s essential to deal with things head on, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. As a small company, we always have fires to put out. However, dealing with those things head-on allows us to deal with it and even solve the problems in unique ways.