From the Criminal Justice System to Entrepreneurship

CEO of the Flikshop app, TED speaker, and Techstars alumni. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Bullock)

I had the opportunity to interview Marcus Bullock, CEO of Flikshop, an app that allows people to send postcards to their friends and family who are incarcerated. Marcus knows prison life all too well as he was incarcerated at 15-year-old. However, today, Marcus has become an exemplar of what it means to be a returning citizen and an entrepreneur. From his appointments on boards at Princeton University, Georgetown University, and the Justice Policy Institute to the nearly two million views of his Ted Talk—Marcus was named one of 2019’s Most Influential African Americans by The Root.

GENESIS FUENTES: Can you tell us a bit about your experience with the criminal justice system?

MARCUS BULLOCK: When I was 15, my best friend and I made a horrible decision to carjack a man that was sleeping in his car in the shopping mall parking lot. We tapped on the window with a firearm, he got out of the car, we got in the car, we sped off leaving him standing there in the middle of the parking lot. Then that very next day, we were arrested for that carjacking. I was sentenced to eight years in adult maximum-security prisons. It was a very interesting time because it was the beginning of my sophomore year in high school, and it was a few weeks before Christmas break and only a couple of weeks after my birthday. After about two years of me dwelling in my own delirium about thinking I would come home one day, I realized that I wasn’t. I was talking to one of my boys, and he told me that he had already served 31 years. And when he told me he had already served 31 years, and I’m looking at this 50-something-year-old man, it dawned on me that I was going to have to serve all eight of my years in prison.

I got really depressed as a result of that, and I became very angry. I went from playful, teenage Marcus that still had ambitions of going home, and graduating from high school, and going to prom, and going to college, and playing D1 basketball, and then making it to the NBA with an electrical engineering degree from Duke University, to now realizing that all of the dreams that I had as a child were now crushed. And me going to commissary and having friends that are serving life in prison were going to be my real reality. My mom saw me starting to cripple, and she wanted to come in and rescue my psyche by writing me letters and sending me photos of my family and my friends to help keep me connected to the world that she saw, instead of me dwelling on just what was right before me and those gates.

GF: What do you think was the most difficult part of transitioning from being a person who has experienced going to prison, to being the owner of your first company?

MB: The interesting thing about going to prison is that there was such a callous that was developed from such a painful experience in my life, that now, it transferred over. Like what can you really describe as being hard? What’s really hard? Are you telling me that you mad that a bunch of investors, some billionaires, didn’t write you a check? No. Try walking through a breezeway in the middle of August with a jean jacket lined with magazines simply because you didn’t want to get, and you’re 16-yearsold. And the only reason that this is an issue for you is because you’re from DC, and DC is beefing with Richmond. That’s hard; that’s psychologically hard.

Trying to go run a business is mad easy. I suffer from a knowledge gap; you don’t know what you don’t know. So, when you get in these environments, and you hear folks talking, “have you developed product market fit [and] brand equity?” These are all vocabulary words that I had never heard of. I’m also listening to some of the trauma that these entrepreneurs have experienced, some of the regret that they had, some of the issues plaguing their businesses. And I’m like, “I would so trade my life for those problems.” My pain tolerance is so high, I just don’t really see that as a problem.

GF: You mentioned how your mental health was affected by being in prison, do you think mental health needs to be reformed as well, especially within the criminal justice system?

MB: Absolutely. There’s a basket full of the folks that need to be able to identify the services that are necessary and then how to service the people that are woven into this justice system. It’s not just the people that are sitting in the cells. We need to be very thoughtful about how we think about what the conditions look like inside these facilities. Which means that we need to talk about how the correctional officers are managing their own mental health while they’re working inside of the cells. What the administrations that direct the programming opportunities, and how they think about the architectural, even landscape, or the design of the prisons and the jails. Those folks need to be thoughtful about how they’re attacking their own mental health and the issues in their own traumas that they’re bringing into their careers. And we don’t talk about the people that work and manage the facilities enough.

Then lastly, the family members of the loved ones in the actual cells themselves. There’s something about having a brother, or sister, or uncle, or mother, or father, that has just gone through this major, this catastrophic, traumatic experience in their lives, and what that means to the invisible victims of incarceration, which is the family members. These are the people that also need to talk through what this experience was like for them.

GF: What drew you to entrepreneurship?

MB: What drew me into entrepreneurship when I was a kid, when I was selling candy, was the same thing that drew me to entrepreneurship when I started selling drugs. Because I thought that was the quickest way to get a Mercedes. What is the quickest way to be able to buy a nice home and get out of my momma’s house? And I knew that me working at the job where I was working, I didn’t have enough say so in how quickly I accelerate my income. I knew with hard work I could outrun anybody. I was working at this paint store, and I’m looking at the register at the end of the day, and I just sold $300,000 worth of paint today. That’s a lot of paint I just sold for this company, and it’s an amazing company. I’m grateful for them to give me the opportunity, but if I have the skillset that allows for me to be able to do this, then I should be able to do it on my own.

GF: Why did you started Flikshop?

MB: I started Flikshop because my mom saved my life when I was in prison by sending me letters and photos. And when I came home and I realized I’m living this amazing, beautiful life as a result of this construction business, and my friends that were in jail and prison, they weren’t seeing it. Flikshop allows our users the ability to take a picture, add some quick text, press send, and for $0.99, we print that picture and text on a real, tangible postcard that we ship to any person, in any jail or prison, anywhere in the country.

GF: What was your experience of starting your company, Flikshop, from the ground up?

MB: We had already launched a successful construction company. When I launched Flikshop, I had no idea how to start a tech company. I’m like, “I want to build this app that connects me back to my friends in jail.” And they’re like, “ Why would you want to talk to someone in jail?” I would hang the phone up, call the next development company. Failure was a part of the journey, and I succeed at anything after this. Anything after this is a win. I started to continue to dig down this rabbit hole of how to start this app. We hustled it on up until we developed a product that we were able to put in the marketplace.

GF: Why did you start Flikshop School of Business?

MB: It was important to be able to take the story of Marcus going from prison to entrepreneurship back into some of the same cells where I lived. And ensure that the folks that lived in those cells understood that they could do it too. I want every one of the 600,000 people that are coming out of these prison cells every year to come home and figure out ways to replicate any levels of success that I’ve had. We built out this curriculum that we took back into the facilities, called Our Introduction to Entrepreneurship class. We were able to see people leaving our classrooms and going back on rec yards using terms like product market fit.

GF: What do you think is one of the most important things for people to understand about the experience of going from being in prison to trying to reintegrate into society?

MB: Literally, I’m the same exact person as your uncle, or your brother, or your cousin. There’s nothing different between he and I. I made a decision; I got caught for that decision; I served a bunch of time in prison; I came home, and now I want to figure out a way to be able to prepare this new part of my life. Almost everyone that goes to college has that same story, about wanting to come home from college and propel the next part of their journey. And most of them don’t have any idea of how to make that happen. In order for them to be able to ensure that they have any level of success past those student loans, is having a community of people that care about them to help band with them together and create that success. It’s the same thing that’s happening for people that are coming home from prison. They want to be able to come home and figure out ways to be able to allow for their community around them to support them in this next stage of their lives.

Genesis Fuentes is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland-College Park and the Corresponding Editor of Contexts magazine.