Staying in touch with loved ones while incarcerated is the ultimate lifeline, according Marcus Bullock, creator of photo postcard app, Flikshop.
He would know.
At the age of 15, Bullock was convicted for carjacking, attempted robbery and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Tried as an adult, Bullock served eight years in several maximum-security prisons.
"In prison, mail call is the best part of the day, every day," said Bullock, "and actually getting mail is like hitting the lottery."
Photos and messages from home can be a major motivator for inmates to turn their lives around following their release, Bullock explained.
That's why, some years after his release from prison in 2004, Bullock created Flikshop. The free app for iPhone and Android smartphones lets users take photos, write messages and send them off in the form of a 99-cent postcard to friends and family members in over 2,000 registered correctional and juvenile justice facilities across the United States.
Now leading a three-person team, Bullock recruited help from developers he found through referrals and meetups to help him build the app.
Flikshop isn't Bullock's first foray into entrepreneurship.
While in prison, he received his GED and started taking college courses, including in business and computer software. After his release, Bullock parlayed a job at a paint store into his own painting and eventually, building remodeling contracting company. Within the last few years, the Lanham, Md.-based entrepreneur has turned his attention to tech -- and the prison life he left behind.
"I was in complete denial," Bullock, now 32, recalled of his first few years as a teen behind bars. "I would call home Collect to my mom and say 'I'll be home in two weeks, because we have a game against Shady Grove.'"
Bullock's mother raised him and his sister as a single mom, balancing her government job with college classes.
"I wanted to find a way to buy those Jordans my mom said she couldn't afford, so I could look cool at the basketball game," Bullock said of his decision to "chase the hood dreams" and get into drug dealing and criminal activity.
His bumpy road into the app-making business certainly comes with its fair share of obstacles.
"I've faced a ton of adversity," said Bullock. "I'm a young black kid talking about launching a tech company with no VC backing, I didn't have any background in tech ... no one took me seriously."
A persistent taboo surrounding the prison system prevents people from even addressing it, let alone thinking about an app like Flikshop, Bullock added.
But he's partnered with prisoner advocacy groups to organize Flikshop-mailing campaigns. Marcus also launched a Flikshop-funded initiative, Bring in the Community, bringing local entrepreneurs like himself into correctional facilities to teach inmates business skills.
"I knew there had to be a better way when I got out," said Bullock. "The goal is to have a positive impact on re-entry for others."