This founder went to prison when he was 15 years old. This is where he came up with an idea for a company now backed by John Legend.
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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 his friend kidnapped a man in the parking lot of a mall. He was arrested and sentenced to eight years in a maximum security prison for adults. “I was in denial and became very depressed for the first couple of years,” says Bullock, founder and CEO of Flikshop. “I couldn’t process and accept the fact that I would eventually have to serve my entire eight-year prison sentence.”
During one visit, Bullock’s mother made a promise to her son who would later be an inspiration to Flikshop. “Marcus, I will write you a letter or send you a picture every day for the remaining six years of your sentence,” she said. Bullock credits his mother with saving his life. “Those pictures, those letters saved me,” he says. “It was the small and the big things that 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 the pictures in prison. Flikshop set out to do many of the things his mother did for him: put everyone in every cell in touch with their family members and other community resources, so they too could visualize their life after prison.
The Flikshop mobile app and website allows 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 imprisoned person. It only costs $0.99 (including postage) and has it delivered directly to them.
The postcard is perforated, so they can rip the letter and keep the note private. Then they can share the photo with others. Today, Flikshop has shipped postcards to all 50 states and connected more than 170,000 families. John Legend is the financial backer of Flikshop through his organization #FREEAMERICA, which he started to help change the criminal justice system in America.
Image credit: Flikshop
“Pictures and letters are the only way those in prison can know that there are still people in the outside world who care about them,” Bullock says. “For me, those letters were a reminder of the life that was waiting for me.”
Here are three lessons Marcus Bullock learned from building the Flick Shop:
“I realized that doing a TED Talk would become my business card.”
“From an early age, I’ve always been a talker,” Bullock says. “My family was always saying, ‘Marcus is always talking about something! “And in many ways, I’m the same Marcus today.”
He remembers the excitement he felt as a young boy participating in the annual school fundraiser. He was determined to talk to as many people as possible and sell the most candy bars, which he did.
As founder, Bullock played down his fondness for storytelling that helped him launch Flikshop. “When I was asked to give my first TED talk, I was hesitant 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. TED Talk became my ultimate business card.”
Bullock remembers standing on that platform, publicly publishing his story of going to prison for the first time. And he was afraid. “My advice to entrepreneurs is don’t let fear hold you back. This TED Talk was my chance to build empathy and understanding for an experience most people don’t discuss openly – how to support incarcerated loved ones.”
“I listened to every advice along the way.”
Bullock launched Flikshop in 2012 because he wanted to be extra careful with his promise to send his friends in prison photos of his return trip. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “I never imagined I would launch a technology company. I searched Google for ‘how to build a mobile app’, and the journey began.”
Bullock credits his success with his thirst for learning, being open, and listening to every advice along the way. He remembers attending office hours that was hosted by a Washington law firm for the founders. He showed up asking question after question and showed that he’s really open to all the advice he’s been given.
Attending these office hours was how he was introduced to Techstars, a startup accelerator in Boulder, Colorado. “This investment and support has allowed me to focus on growing Flikshop full time in 2018,” Bullock says. “I wouldn’t be here without all the fans who have given me coaching and guidance along the way.”
“I am building a fortune for generations.”
Flikshop is not Bullock’s first entrepreneurial venture. He built a successful painting business when he left prison and then built a construction company. He initially booted Flikshop, taking cash from his construction business to fund his mission. “My family saw what I did in my business, how successful I was, and I wanted them to have a chance to be part of the Flick Shop,” Bullock says. “I knew this was our chance to build a fortune for generations.”
Bullock recounts how he invited several members of his family into a conference room at his construction company. He outlined his vision and three-year strategic plan for Flikshop. He asked if they would participate in this friends and family tour, and that they contribute at least $1,200. Then he gave them a deadline. He waited anxiously, and many of them returned with checks.
“As founders, we can build our vision with the support of our family and friends to help change their lives too,” Bullock says. “It became a vision possible because a mother never stopped believing in her 15-year-old son who made one mistake that changed the course of his life forever.”