French startup ten ten is experiencing viral success and controversy with the reinvention of walkie-talkies

Less than a year after launching its iOS version, French startup ten ten has gone viral with a walkie-talkie app that lets teens 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 ever heard may depend on your age group, and teenagers have obviously heard about it long before us; although walkie-talkies, even in app form, are clearly not a new concept. Ten ten does the same thing, but in 2024.

“We are ephemeral by nature,” said Jule Comar, co-founder and CEO of ten ten, in a written interview with TechCrunch. He added that 1010 in CB codes means “transfer completed, ready.” According to Comar, this is just one of “several meanings that align with our values ​​and the concept.” It seems to be catching on; the app is free and is quickly rising in the rankings.

Ten Ten's sudden rise is particularly noticeable in France, where the app has already been downloaded one million times. On Android, where it has been available for a few weeks, the app has also been downloaded six million times since its launch, according to data provided to TechCrunch on Friday by market research firm Sensor Tower.

The concept could also be tweaked over time. The current UX suggests a 9-friend limit, but that's not the case. “Ten-ten is for close friends, but there's no friend limit. We see people sharing 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 allow users to find each other. The app also requests access to the user's contacts (but no one is added without user action). This model has an inherent virality, but that's not the only growth driver; TikTok “played a major role,” Comar said.

Photo credits: ten ten

Ten Ten's download numbers undoubtedly continued to rise over the weekend: Ten Ten has been all over the French media lately. Not always in a positive way; French newspaper Le Figaro, for example, called it “worrying”. “I was very surprised,” said Comar. “There's nothing 'dangerous' about Ten Ten!”

It's not just articles that portray the app in a negative light; there's also fake news circulating, Comar said. “There were some rumors that we were a Chinese app because of the name 'ten ten', and we were falsely accused of 'espionage' and 'data theft'…”

Ten ten is not Chinese, however. The company has been duly registered in France since 2021 and is therefore also subject to GDPR. The current terms and conditions are formulaic, but it is mentioned that the team is in the process of writing better ones. More importantly, the startup's privacy policy remains adamant on two points:

  • All your conversations are fleeting, we cannot listen to your conversations because we don't even store them!
  • We will never sell your data!!

Aside from the decision not to sell data, it's unclear how ten will make money. “We have a lot of cool ideas about how we could make money at a later date,” Comar said. There's no doubt that their current success is buying them time — and helping them raise venture capital to get to that later date.

When asked if his startup already has funding or is in the process of raising it, Comar answered yes. But, he added with a smiley face, “we can’t really disclose how much and [from] Who else.”

Responding to TechCrunch, French venture capitalist Hugo Amsellem said that while his company Intuition is not one of those backers, he sees “ten ten” as part of a larger trend among French startups.

For Amsellem, the common thread is that “France is the king of status games”. Individuals want to increase their social status and French entrepreneurs are happy to help them do that, whether on the software side with 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, a feeling that's hard to describe but that a few lucky people have already experienced. It feels like everything is happening so fast and so slow at the same time, adrenaline mixed with pride, gratitude and responsibility, you feel big and small at the same time – something you can only experience in social consumption because it can hit you when you least expect it and there is no upper limit. But we have to keep a cool head, it's only the beginning, the hardest is yet to come.

Comar and ten ten co-founder and CTO Antoine Baché have been sleeping very little lately. An automated email response peppered with smileys warns that they are “experiencing issues with our servers due to a large number of concurrent users” and are “working day and night to fix the problem once and for all.”

Aside from the server issues, the generation gap is a hurdle that ten ten must deftly overcome. More than privacy, the fact that ten ten is used by teenagers and in classrooms is often discussed. “When you read these articles, it feels like they are talking about a new drug that is circulating in schools!” said Comar.

It's easy to see why teachers were the first adults to notice the app. Because it can bypass a lock screen to play a message out loud, it can be used for pranks and cause minor disruptions in the classroom. But the need to teach cell phone hygiene is nothing new, and kids are smart enough to figure that out, too.

A French subreddit for teachers discussed whether members had any issues with using Ten Ten in class. One participant noted that there had been “no major incidents so far,” despite the app attracting “a lot of attention” at his school. But, this person added, “I ask students to put their phones in airplane mode.” (We didn't check to see if this person is a teacher, but their profile seems to confirm this.)

Rather than sparking a new moral panic, perhaps the 10th anniversary could be an opportunity for parents to marvel at the comeback of some of our favorite cultural artifacts, whether that's cassette tapes, Dungeons & Dragons, or now walkie-talkies.

It's a small step from obsolete to old-fashioned, and the success of Stranger Things probably helped with that. But app-based walkie-talkies wouldn't gain real traction if there wasn't a real use case for them. Comar believes there is, and that's what inspired him.

“I've always had a close circle of friends, we talk to each other every day through different media, but I felt there was always friction between them,” he said. “I wanted us to be able to communicate as if we were always under the same roof, like roommates: you just walk into their room if you want to say something, if the door is closed you knock, if it's open you just talk!”

Hopefully parents will also see the value of this feature. 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.