Drug Trafficking To Tech: My Startup Story

in Perspective by

I have always had a high tolerance for risk. At 23 I was arrested and sentenced to federal prison for running a marijuana distribution organization with “operations” across 2 countries and 4 states. Yes, my first major stint in business was illegal, but it was the operation of that business and consequent prison sentence that developed and honed my business acumen, prepping me for the entrepreneurial marathon I am running today.

I sold kilos of coke I’m guessing I can sell cds – Jay-z, Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)

Although I am in a very different business now, the challenges are the same. If Pigeonly (my company) isn’t taking market share, we are losing market share. And, with over 20 million people who know or have a loved one in prison, we cannot afford to lose any ground if we have any hopes of reaching our ambitious goals of disrupting the highly predatory $6 billion dollar inmate services industry. To have staying power, Pigeonly needed to scale….

When I started the company back in 2012, I had no clue what it would take to build and scale a company in this space. What I did know is that people did not have an easy way to share photos with their incarcerated loved ones and that $15 was a ridiculous amount to spend on a single phone call. So, we set out to build a solution. Our first stab at this wasn’t very pretty and barely worked, but it was good enough to validate our idea and gave us a foundation to build on. We then shifted our focus to the weaker areas of the business- people, product, and process, so we could better navigate the twists and turns, challenges and risks transitioning our startup to a growth-stage company. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way….

Be bold, be creative and simplify EVERYTHING: We knew that in order to get to where we wanted to go, we would have to leave where we were behind. Our future depended upon us breaking free from our ingrained established patterns. This forced us to look for creative ways to address the new problems we faced as our business expanded to broader markets. In short, we had to innovate, and not complicate.

The devil is in the details: Great execution takes more than just hustle—it also requires attention to detail, especially the unsexy and boring details. I always remind myself and the team to “find the devil,” because, when the details of a matter are overlooked or ignored, there’s a pretty strong possibility that shit will go sideways. And one time, in particular, that devil almost put us out of business. Like I said, shit went sideways.

Accountability to the culture: We’ve always been an organization where expectations are communicated openly and honestly. Holding ourselves accountable to the Pigeonly brand and to each other is our norm. What we had to work at was maintaining our culture as the team grew. It only takes one bad hire to kill the vibe, and like cancer, a toxic employee needs to be removed before their negative impact spreads – because negativity always spreads.

Today, (5 years later) we have customers in 88 countries and have grown Pigeonly into one of the country’s largest independent inmate services providers, saving families over $2 million a year in phone fees. Needless to say, we’re excited about the new heights we’ll reach in the future and extremely proud of what we have built and accomplished to date. As entrepreneurs, we have the opportunity to shape the future. To turn that rosy colored image in our minds of what we will build and the impact it’ll make in the world into reality. Be prepared to play the long game, and with time and sacrifice and you’ll achieve success, whatever that may mean to you.

This article was originally published here.

Please Note: The opinions, representations, and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions & views of EntrePotion, its founders or employees. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. EntrePotion accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.



Frederick Hutson is the CEO and co-founder of Pigeonly, a platform that makes it easy for people to search, find and communicate with an incarcerated loved one. A born entrepreneur, he launched and sold his first business at the age of 19 while on active duty in the Air Force. He soon left the military (with an honorable discharge) to launch his second business which he also sold for a profit. His desire to attain the American dream on his terms took him down the wrong path and at 23 he was sent to federal prison for the illegal distribution of 3,000 kg of marijuana. It was this life-changing experience that motivated him to build a solution that would positively affect the lives of people no one else was paying attention to – inmates and their families. The idea of Pigeonly was born.