Technology startups are changing the way consumers are living life, solving everyday issues and altering the way we interact with our daily technology. These rising tech companies are disrupting the innovation economy, one app, hardware item and software service at a time. The innovators behind these tech tools, products or organizations have followed through with their concepts and established noteworthy startups. BlackEnterprise.com is recognizing these pioneering startups in its Tech Startup of the Week series.
Founder + CEO: Frederick Hutson
Social Media: Twitter: @pigeon_ly
It’s rare that a brush with the law results in an innovative idea, a comfortable seed round of financing and the support of technology heavyweights such as Angela Benton, founder and CEO of the NewME Accelerator and Mitchell Kapor of Kapor Capital, a firm that invests in seed and early stage tech startups. But such is the case for Frederick Hutson, founder and CEO of Pigeonly, a data company that supports connections between those that are incarcerated and the outside world.
The idea for Pigeonly was sparked by Hutson’s own time behind bars. After spending four years in prison for trafficking marijuana, the serial entrepreneur began putting his plan into motion. The 29-year-old took his first-hand experience and applied it to the current prison structure, reaching a virtually untapped market and providing information that assists both inmates and the public.
“Part of the problem is that institutions and suppliers to these institutions, who are contracted to these institutions, take advantage of the fact that they [inmates] don’t have options,” says Hutson. “So, you’ll have a big player in place and he’ll have a contact with the facility and he’ll charge whatever he wants, exorbitant prices, and the inmate really has no choice but to pay.”
The Brooklyn-born entrepreneur is shifting the current business model by going directly to the decision makers, the inmates. “With our system we have access to inmates nationwide; we’re not restricted to any particular institution,” adds Hutson.
Shortly after securing a $1 million seed round of funding from investors such as Kesha Cash of Jalia Ventures, Erik Moore of Base VC, former NFL player Shawntae Spencer and Kapor, among others, BlackEnterprise.com caught up with Pigeonly’s chief executive to discuss how his company removes the middle man and deals directly with the consumer, the tech behind his idea and what’s next for the data company.
How Pigeonly Works: “We’re really a data company and we use our data to drive different products and services,” explains Hutson. Pigeonly does all the backend work for users and creates consumer-facing products with the data generated. The company indexes all the prison and inmate related databases available, then algorithmically finds associations between various data points to develop a knowledge graph of those incarcerated.
“You can just put in John Smith and our system will search all the databases that are accessible, and we’ll locate John Smith and come back with John Smith and all of John Smith’s information, his inmate number, all that,” says Hutson. “This is important because in order to send anything to an inmate, you have to have his full name, his whole inmate number, which is similar to a social security number, and the address of whatever institution, even down to the housing unit that he’s at.” Family members may start out with one or two pieces of information, but Pigeonly’s database yields the additional information needed to contact their loved one directly.
Pigeonly offers two products: Fotopigeon, which lets its 7,000 users upload photos and send the selected images via mail for $.50 per print (with free shipping and a 3-5 day arrival time), and the newly-launched Telepigeon, provides a money saving way to receive calls from inmates. Regardless of an inmate’s physical location, Telepigeon provides the inmate with a local number that forwards to the family members existing line. Whether an inmate is in the same state as their loved ones or not, every time he/she dials home it’ll act as a local call which will save the inmate a significant amount of money. The app launched in late September and already has around 2,000 users.
Lesson Learned: Fotopigeon is what got Hutson into the NewME Accelerator, but he quickly learned he needed more than a product to generate business. “Going through the accelerator taught me the difference between having a product and owning a business…a lot of people have ideas, but really those aren’t sustainable businesses, those are just product ideas.”
Next Up: The seven-member team has several things in store, but focused on perfecting both product offerings.