At the age of 15, Marcus Bullock made the biggest mistake of his life.
It was 1996, and he was living in Prince George’s County, Maryland. One night, he and a friend carried out an armed carjacking on a man sitting idle in a shopping mall parking lot.
This act landed the teen a potential life sentence — and he eventually served 8 years in a Virginia state prison.
During that time, Bullock decided to turn his life around.
Today, he is the founder and CEO of Flikshop, an app that allows anyone to send a personalized postcard photo or message to any incarcerated person in the United States.
The Hustle recently spoke with Bullock about his inspirational journey, from facing down a life sentence to forging a path as an entrepreneur.
A broken system and a mother’s sacrifice
Several years before Bullock’s conviction, the 1989 Central Park jogger case — in which 5 minority youths were (falsely) charged with raping a jogger — made national headlines.
In the aftermath of this high-profile case, nearly every state passed new laws that made it easier for courts to try youth as adults.
According to the nonprofit organization Campaign for Youth Justice, hundreds of thousands of youths were (and continue to be) charged as adults every year.
Just 15 at the time of his conviction, Bullock was sentenced to a penitentiary full of men twice his age.
“I went through puberty in prison,” Bullock recalls of his experience.
Top left: One of Bullock’s last family photos before prison; Top right: A high-school basketball career that never was; Bottom left: Bullock with his mother during a prison visit; Bottom right: A recent photo of mother and son (via Marcus Bullock)
At a point in life when he should have been preparing for college, Bullock found himself in pure survival mode.
And the person who helped him get through it was his mother.
“It was the hardest time of my life, and my mom made a commitment to either send a letter or send me a photo every day,” says Bullock. “She saved me, but what I didn’t know then was how expensive the phone calls were — $18 for 15 minutes.”
Bullock’s mother would sometimes even send entire folders of family photos to her son to remind him of home, even though it created more of a financial burden.
To maintain the expense of the connection, she had to downgrade from a 3-bedroom apartment to a studio.
“When I finished my sentence, I finally saw the sacrifice my mother made,” Bullock tells The Hustle. “When one person in a family goes to prison, the entire family goes to prison.”
Prisoner to entrepreneur
Halfway through his prison term, Bullock’s cousin was murdered.
“I started hearing about others from my neighborhood, or even my church, that were killed or also locked up,” Bullock says. “I knew there had to be something more than this life. There had to be something on the other side.”
Bullock visiting with inmates after his 2004 release (via Marcus Bullock)
There were 2 major influences that planted the seeds for his future:
- Another inmate named Tony: “He was 10 years older than me and was serving 15 years. When we met, I was getting into fights in the yard and he told me, ‘You’re too smart for this… you still have a future.’ He’s still someone that I get advice from to this day.”
- Jay-Z: “When I heard his first album, he was rapping about how to be a successful businessman with a nontraditional path. He didn’t go to college but became a multimillionaire. Jay-Z gave me permission to believe that I could be a successful entrepreneur.”
Bullock took these words to heart and began to seek out entrepreneurial pursuits, selling honey buns to other inmates.
Upon his release in 2004, the 23-year-old found that the professional market wasn’t kind to folks with a criminal record. After being rejected from 41 jobs, he finally landed a gig mixing paint.
Once he secured this opportunity, Bullock knew he “had to be much better” than anyone else to succeed.
He studied the paint industry nonstop — and eventually learned enough about the trade to launch his own contracting business. From the onset, he set out to hire “returning citizens” (a term he prefers to “former inmates”).
“The Maryland Department of Transportation helped me set up as a minority business enterprise,” he says of launching his first startup. “Once I got that status and could bid on state projects, I went out to hustle.”
A Jay-Z rhyme that inspired Bullock (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Reform Alliance; Illustration by The Hustle)
As Bullock built his business up to a network of 30 painters, he walked on eggshells regarding his past.
“I was in people’s homes and places of business about to hand them 5-figure proposals, so the last thing I wanted was for them to find out my previous life,” he says. “It was very stressful.”
But he also found that prison had strengthened his resolve.
“I wasn’t afraid of being told no,” he says. “People get turned down all the time in prison by every prison warden and administrator, so I was used to it. If I had to knock on hundreds of doors to get a contract, I would. What was the alternative?”
Bullock’s contracting business eventually reached 7 figures, including notable projects with BWI Airport, Georgetown, and Howard University.
It took Bullock 5 years to learn how to properly run a business — “even something as basic as what to do with retained earnings.”
By 2012, he had the track record, the network, and the money to start a new venture. And he knew just where to start.
The prisoner communication gap
While serving his time, Bullock had witnessed the exploitative nature of prison phone calls.
An investigation by the New York Times found that the communication services (ICS) industry was worth as much as $1.2B in 2015, encompassing 500m jail and prison calls. And according to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (PPJ), prisoners are often “forced to rely upon monopolistic, predatory operators chosen for them by state agencies.”
Inmates are effectively at the whim of 2 privately owned telecom providers:
- Global Tel Link, which was founded in 1980 and controls ~50% of the market
- Securus Technologies, which was founded in 1984 and controls ~20% of the market
To this day, intrastate (within state) phone rates — where ~90% of calls happen — continue to be unregulated.
For the right to operate the phone lines, ICS firms are also willing to pay kickbacks to state and local prison systems in the form of commissions — often in excess of 50% of revenue — which further drive up the cost of calls.
Bullock saw a viable alternative in social media, which was taking off at the time. But prisoners couldn’t communicate with their families on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
So, he decided to launch his own alternative.
In 2012, Bullock came up with the idea of a platform where families could easily communicate with their imprisoned loved ones by sending postcards and messages. He called it Flikshop.
The premise was simple:
- Loved ones would download the app and choose a photo
- They’d “send” it to an inmate
- Flikshop would deliver their message on a postcard for $0.99
The venture was self-funded. In fact, Bullock says he didn’t even know what an angel investor was up until a few years ago.
“I thought you could only grow your business with your own revenue,” he says. “When I found wealthy individuals give you money based on an idea, it blew my mind.”
For 3 years, Bullock traveled to 100+ jails and prisons across the country, trying to convince key decision-makers to grant access to the app.
After nearly a decade of running from his past, Bullock began to tell his story — the story of a former inmate who was able to turn around his life, and who wanted to help others do the same.
Coupled with an angel investment from the musician John Legend (who has an interest in prison reform), Flikshop began to break through.
Top left: The Flikshop office; Top right: Bullock gives a talk about Flikshop; Bottom: Flikshop postcards (via Marcus Bullock)
Since being validated by a few dozen jails and prisons, Flikshop has spread via the word-of-mouth of wardens.
Today, Flikshop has access to 2.7k jails and prisons across America, and 170k+ people have sent over half a million postcards through the platform.
Aside from the direct-to-consumer (D2C) offering, Bullock is seeing traction with other verticals:
- Enterprise: Nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies use Flikshop to communicate important information to inmates such as job opportunities and criminal justice reform. (Recent examples include Slack and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition).
- Flikshop Angels: A program where regular citizens can pay the cost for children of inmates to send Flikshop postcards.
“We want to grow the enterprise business,” he says. “It’ll help keep costs down for the D2C business and allow families to stay in touch with their loved ones.”
Ultimate goal: reduce recidivism
With prison visitation rights restricted during the pandemic, Flikshop has seen greater usage of its service.
Bullock is currently fundraising and will use the resources to expand his team and build up the back-end tech — specifically a proprietary database of inmates, many of whom will be returning citizens one day.
“We can combine our data with AI that helps individuals keep in good standing with authorities while providing health, training, and job support,” Bullock explains. “Our efforts will help reduce recidivism, which is very expensive for society.”
Bullock is still living through the repercussions of his own actions: He can’t coach some of his 10-year-old son’s sports teams or chaperone his 4-year-old daughter on field trips.
“No matter what I do for the community now, I know that there is someone that is traumatized from my actions,” he says. “I’ve had to learn to live with that and I tell people in my position that taking accountability is what they need to do to move on.”
But Bullock’s introspection has put him in a position to become a successful entrepreneur while helping others.
“At 15 years old, I was facing life in prison,” he says. “Now, I want to become a poster child of what second chances look like.”
Bullock with his family (via Marcus Bullock)