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French startup ten ten finds viral success and controversy in reinventing walkie-talkies

Less than one year after its iOS launch, French startup ten ten has gone viral with a walkie-talkie app that allows teens to send voice messages to their close friends — even when their phone is locked. 

Whether you think that’s a recipe for disaster or the coolest thing you’ve heard may depend on your age group, and teens clearly heard of that one long before we did; although walkie talkies are clearly not a new concept, even in app form. Ten ten is doing the same, but in 2024.

“We’re ephemeral by design,” ten ten co-founder and CEO, Jule Comar said in a written interview with TechCrunch. He added that In CB codes, 1010 means “Transmission completed, standing by.” According to Comar, this is just one of “multiple meanings that align with our values and the concept.” It seems to be resonating; the app is free and quickly climbing rankings.

Ten ten’s sudden rise is particularly noticeable in France, where it has been downloaded 1 million times. Including on Android, where it became available a few weeks ago, the app saw 6 million downloads since its launch, according to data shared by market intelligence firm Sensor Tower with TechCrunch on Friday. 

The concept could also receive tweaks along the way. The current UX suggests a 9-friend cap, but that’s not the case. “Ten ten is for close friends but there’s no friend limit, we’re seeing people share their PINs on social media so we’re working on a better friend management system,” Comar said.

The PINs Comar is referring to are the IDs that users can use to find each other. The app also asks for access to the user’s contacts (but nobody gets added without user action.) There’s inherent virality in this model, but that’s not the only growth driver; TikTok “played an important role,” Comar said.

Image Credits: ten ten

Ten ten’s download numbers have undoubtedly kept on rising during the weekend: ten ten has been all over the French media lately. Not always with a positive spin; French newspaper Le Figaro, for instance, called it “worrying.” “I was very surprised,” Comar said. “There’s nothing “dangerous” about ten ten!”

It’s not just articles looking at the app in a negative light; there is also fake news circulating, Comar said. “There were some rumors going around that we were a Chinese app because of the name “ten ten” and we got wrongly accused of “spying” and “stealing data”…”

Ten ten is not Chinese, though. The company has been duly registered in France, since 2021, meaning it is also subject to GDPR. Its current terms and conditions are formulaic, but mention that the team is in the process of writing better ones. More importantly, the startup’s privacy policy is adamant about two points:

  • All your conversations are ephemeral, we can’t listen to your conversation as we don’t even store them!
  • We will never sell your data!!

Besides that decision not to sell data, it is unclear how ten ten will make money. “We have a lot of cool ideas on how we could monetize at a later point,” Comar said. There’s no doubt that their current success will buy them time — and help them secure venture capital to get to that later point.

Asked if his startup already had or was in the process of raising funding, Comar replied affirmatively. But, he added with a smiley, “we can’t really disclose how much and [from] whom yet.”

In response to TechCrunch, French VC Hugo Amsellem indicated that although his firm Intuition isn’t one of these backers, he sees ten ten as part of a larger trend among French startups. 

For Amsellem, the common thread is that “France is king at status game plays.” Individuals are seeking to increase their social status, and French entrepreneurs are happy to help, whether that’s on the software side BeReal, Yubo or Zenly, or on the hardware side with luxury devices. 

It remains to be seen how long ten ten can retain its cool factor, but its CEO is aware that its current position is both privileged and fragile. Comar said:

It’s exhilarating, it’s a feeling that is hard to describe but that a few lucky ones have felt, it feels like everything is going so fast and so slow at the same time, adrenaline mixed with pride, gratitude and responsibilities, you feel big and small at the same time — You can only feel this in consumer social, because it can hit you when you least expect it and there’s no ceiling. But we have to keep our heads on our shoulders, it’s just the beginning, the hardest is yet to come.

Comar and ten ten co-founder and CTO Antoine Baché have been sleeping very little lately. A smiley-ridden email auto-reply warns that they are “having issues with our servers due to a huge number of users at the same time,”  and “working on it day and night to fix it once and for all.”

Server pains aside, a generational gap is one hurdle that ten ten will have to navigate smartly. More than privacy, it is often the fact that ten ten is used by teens and in classrooms that’s being discussed. “When you read these articles it feels like they’re talking about some kind of new drug going around in school!” Comar said.  

It’s easy to see why teachers were the first adults to notice the app. Since ten ten can bypass a lock screen to play a message out loud, it can be used for pranks and create small disruptions in classrooms. But having to teach phone hygiene isn’t new, and kids are savvy enough to figure it out, too.

In a French subreddit for teachers, a discussion took place as to whether members had had any problems with ten ten in classrooms. One participant noted that there had been “no major incidents so far” despite the app “getting a lot of attention” at their school. But, that person added, “I ask the students to put their phones on airplane mode.” (We haven’t reached out to verify that this person is a teacher, but their profile seems to confirm it’s the case.)

Instead of starting a new moral panic, perhaps ten ten could be an opportunity for parents to marvel at the fact that some of our favorite cultural artifacts are making a comeback; whether that’s cassettes, Dungeons & Dragons, or now, walkie talkies.

There’s only one small step from obsolete to vintage, and the success of ‘Stranger Things‘ likely helped. But app-based walkie talkies would get no actual traction if there was no real use case around them. Comar thinks there is, and that’s what inspired him.

“I’ve always had a group of close friends, we talk everyday on multiple mediums, but I felt like they all had some kind of friction,” he said. “I wanted us to be able to communicate like if we were always under the same roof, like roommates: you just pop in their room when you want to say something, if their door is closed you knock, if it’s open you just talk!”

Hopefully for ten ten, parents will see the value in that as well. Who knows, maybe they can use it to say out loud that dinner is ready. That is, if their teen accepts them as a contact.

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