This Founder Went to Prison When He Was 15 Years Old. That's Where He Came Up With the Idea for a Company Now Backed By John Legend.
Three of the most important lessons Marcus Bullock has learned from building Flikshop.
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When Marcus Bullock was 15 years old, he made a decision that would change the course of his life. He and a friend carjacked a man in a shopping mall parking lot. He was arrested and sentenced to eight years in an adult maximum-security prison. "I was in denial and became very depressed during those first two years," Bullock, who is now founder and CEO of Flikshop, says. "I couldn't process and accept the fact that I would end up having to serve the entire eight-year sentence."
During one visit, Bullock's mother made a promise to her son that would later serve as the inspiration for Flikshop. "Marcus, I'm going to write you a letter or send you a picture every day for the remaining six years of your sentence," she told him. Bullock credits his mother with saving his life. "Those pictures, those letters, saved me," he says. "It was the small and big things she shared with me that gave me a clear vision of what my life would look like after prison. My life was far from over."
Flikshop is named after "fliks," which is what Bullock and his friends called pictures in prison. He started Flikshop to do for many what his mother did for him: Keep every person in every cell connected to their family members and other community resources, so they too can envision their life after prison.
The Flikshop mobile app and website allow users to send a photo and message to a loved one in prison, which Flikshop will print on a postcard and send directly to the incarcerated individual. It costs just $0.99 (including postage) and is delivered directly to them.
The postcard is perforated, so they can tear off the message and keep the note private. Then they can share the photo with others. Today, Flikshop has shipped postcards into all 50 states and has connected more than 170,000 families. John Legend is a financial supporter of Flikshop through his organization #FREEAMERICA, which he started to help transform America's criminal justice system.
"Pictures and letters are the one way for those in prison to know there are still people in the outside world who care for them," Bullock says. "For me, those letters were a reminder of the life that was waiting for me."
Here are three lessons Marcus Bullock has learned from building Flikshop:
"I realized doing a TED Talk would become my business card."
"From a young age, I was always a talker," Bullock says. "My family always said, 'Marcus is always talking about something!' And in many ways, I am that same Marcus today."
He recalls the excitement he felt as a young boy participating in his annual school fundraiser. He was determined to talk to as many people as possible and sell the most candy bars, which he did.
As a founder, Bullock underestimated how his penchant for storytelling would help him launch Flikshop. "When I was asked to do my first TED Talk, I was reluctant because I didn't consider myself a public speaker," he says. "And then I realized it was a powerful opportunity to share my story on stage and build the Flikshop brand. That TED Talk became my ultimate business card."
Bullock recalls standing on that stage, publicly sharing his story of going to prison for the first time. And he was scared. "My advice to entrepreneurs is not to let fear hold you back. That TED Talk was my opportunity to build empathy and understanding for an experience that most people don't openly discuss — how to support loved ones who are incarcerated."
"I listened to every piece of advice along the way."
Bullock launched Flikshop in 2012 because he wanted to be more diligent about his promise to send his friends in prison pictures of his reentry journey. "I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "I never imagined that I would launch a tech company. I Googled 'how to build a mobile app,' and the journey began."
Bullock credits his success to his hunger for learning and to being open and listening to every piece of advice along the way. He recalls attending office hours a law firm in D.C. was hosting for founders. He showed up asking question after question and showed he was genuinely open to all of the advice he was given.
Attending those office hours was how he was introduced to Techstars, a Boulder, Colo.-based startup accelerator. "That investment and support allowed me the ability to focus on growing Flikshop full time in 2018," Bullock says. "I wouldn't be here without all of the supporters who gave me coaching and guidance along the way."
"I am building generational wealth."
Flikshop isn't Bullock's first venture into entrepreneurship. He built a successful painting business when he left prison and then went on to build a construction company. He initially bootstrapped Flikshop, taking cash out of his construction business to fund his mission. "My family saw what I did with my businesses, how successful I was, and I wanted them to have an opportunity to be part of Flikshop," Bullock says. "I knew this was our opportunity to build generational wealth."
Bullock recounts how he invited a number of family members to a conference room at his construction company. He went through his vision and three-year strategic plan for Flikshop. He asked if they'd participate in this friends and family round, and that they at a minimum contribute $1,200. Then he gave them a deadline. He waited anxiously, and many of them came back with checks.
"As founders, we can build our vision with the support of our family and friends to help change their lives as well," Bullock says. "It's a vision made possible because a mother never stopped believing in her 15-year-old son who made one mistake that forever changed the trajectory of his life."