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Idea man's latest inspiration: prison

Frederick Hutson has always been an entrepreneur. He fixed fans and fridges as a kid in Brooklyn. He launched a window-tinting business right out of Brandon High School. He started and sold a cellphone store.

At 21, he saw his friends' St. Petersburg-based businesses struggling and thought of a solution — a more efficient way to traffic marijuana.

He used money from his other businesses to open a shipping store to serve as a mailing hub for the drugs. He planned to use his profits to launch lawful businesses.

Before he could make his vision a reality, federal authorities made his home a prison cell. On Aug. 15, 2008, Hutson, a young man with no previous criminal record, was sentenced to four years and three months for trafficking marijuana.

But Hutson's story is not about hard time. It's about determination and ingenuity, and being successful in an industry that looks nothing like you.

Now, a year-and-a-half out of prison, 29-year-old Hutson leads a technology company he conceived in prison. This month, he is in Silicon Valley, pitching his products to industry leaders and venture capitalists.

Some of his ideas are already running. His main product — Fotopigeon, which helps family and friends send photos to loved ones in prison — is making money and, according to Hutson, is growing about 37 percent a week.

Hutson is in the 1 percent.

Industry trackers estimate only 1 percent of venture-funded companies are founded by African-Americans. Two of his business partners are also black. His programmer is a woman.

They stand out at conferences. Recently in San Francisco, a man walked up to Hutson's booth and saw a tech product that caters to the incarcerated. And he saw three black men.

"Okay, which one of you has been in prison?" the man asked.

Hutson, who dresses California casual, who is muscular, outgoing and a natural at networking, does not take offense.

He was raised by a single mother and never went to college. He knows he looks odd in an industry filled with Harvard dropouts and programmers glued to computer screens.

It can be stressful pitching to a room of people who have no idea what prison is like. But his idea, born behind bars, is unique because of his insider's perspective.

"It's how I know our competitors can't duplicate us tomorrow," he says.

The pitch

Hutson has an easy cadence. He smiles and makes eye contact. He's smooth, but doesn't seem rehearsed.

"In my experience, staying in contact with family from prison is difficult," Hutson says. "It costs about $70 a month for 300 phone minutes.

"To get photos, my mom would have to take time off work to drive to print the photos and go to the post office to mail them.

"Smartphones were just coming out, and I thought, 'Why can't this be solved?' "

He solved the problem while in prison.

It took awhile. He spent the first year reflecting. He regretted moving marijuana, and he felt bad about disappointing those he loved.

Then, sitting in his cell, he drew pictures of what he wanted his website and app to look like. He devised a business plan. He built a spreadsheet by hand.

In September 2011, authorities sent him to a work-release program at the Goodwill on Hillsborough Avenue, north of Tampa. Most of the inmates worked as telemarketers or cleaned Raymond James Stadium.

Hutson persuaded his friend Alfonzo Brooks of Tampa to hire him at minimum wage. That fulfilled the requirement that Hutson hold a paying job, and it gave Hutson access to a computer.

He worked at Brooks' office on Kennedy Boulevard from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. On Sundays, when work-release officials made Hutson stay at the Goodwill, he'd sneak in his cellphone and fire off emails.

Over the phone, vendors and potential partners had no idea that Hutson was serving time. When he was let out in March 2012, he had a working prototype of Fotopigeon.

This is how it works:

Family and friends of prison inmates can upload photos online or with a smartphone application. A company in California prints the photos and mails them to the inmate.

It costs 50 cents a photo and shipping is free.

It is similar to other photo-printing companies, such as Shutterfly, except that Fotopigeon specifically markets to inmates by sending them greeting cards in prison. The inmates then tell their family members about Fotopigeon's service.

Also, because federal inmates frequently move between prisons, relatives often do not know the address of their loved one. With an algorithm built in-house, Fotopigeon has access to the addresses of about a third of the U.S. prison population.

It's a valuable list that took about eight months for programmer Sabaina Bukhari to build, Hutson said. No one else has a list like this, he says, and it's growing.

Making lemonade

In Silicon Valley, he is "Frederick" — all business, working nonstop, sometimes to dawn.

But to family, he's "Freddie French Fry," a nod to his favorite food as a kid, said his mom, Lavorian Hutson.

She was devastated when Freddie went to prison. That was not how she raised him. Among her children, she counts a physician, a nurse and a soon-to-be veterinarian. Freddie, who lives near her in Valrico, had been in the Air Force.

It took awhile to accept that it had happened, but as he planned his next steps, she was one of the first people he told.

Lavorian Hutson has a mother's faith. In her mind, he's the next Bill Gates.

"He has the drive," she said. "No closed door is going to stop him."

In prison, the lack of a desk did not stop him. He rolled back his mattress and worked on his steel bed.

From the halfway house, he did not have any money, so he persuaded the photo company to do some coding for free.

His first "investment" was $2,500 from a car crash on State Road 60. He still has a dent in his Cadillac CTS.

After building his product, he cold-called Brian Butler, owner of a Tampa public relations firm who is black and a veteran, like Hutson. He persuaded Butler to represent him, deferring fees.

Now, when Hutson pitches his ideas to venture capitalists from his spot in the NewMe Accelerator in California, some see his prison stint as an asset. Others fall silent, unsure of how to respond until Hutson makes them laugh.

"I say, 'We've got the ultimate captive audience.' " He pauses. " 'Literally.' "

The business saw about 3,000 users this past month, and he wants to grow to 300,000. To do that he needs investors. He wants to hire three more programmers and move all his employees to one city.

Whatever he does, he knows it will be risky, and he's not afraid of that.

This time, though, he knows his limit:

Nothing illegal.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Idea man's latest inspiration: prison 04/21/13 [Last modified: Monday, April 22, 2013 8:30am]

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