I Feel Like A Kid Again With HeyTell, The Social Walkie-Talkie App With 3 Million Users

When I was a kid, there were few things cooler than a walkie-talkie. I recall spending many a night running around hotels causing havoc as my friends and I pretended we were on some sort of secret mission, talking to each other back and forth over these devices. Then cell phones came along and changed everything. For a short amount of time, push-to-talk technology in some phones replicated the idea. But smartphones quickly put an end to the fun.

But there’s hope for the walkie-talkie making a comeback. At least in app form. In fact, maybe it already has very quietly. An app called HeyTell already has 3 million users.

HeyTell is an app for the iPhone and Android phones that allows you to instantly send short voice messages to other users. Or, as they put it: “push-to-talk, starting at $0.”

The app is the brainchild of the husband-and-wife team, Steven Hugg and Jen Harvey, who created the company Voxilate. In the Fall of 2009, the two quit their jobs and decided they were going to focus on building some sort of application based around voice technology. By February of 2010, they had the idea to replicate the fun of a walkie-talkie. So, like any entrepreneurs with an idea, they decided to pack up their things and hit the road for a multi-month road trip across the United States.

Wait, what?

Yes, oddly, the duo created and launched HeyTell while doing a cross-country trip. They would stop at locations for a few weeks at a time, then pack up and head off again. They started in Washington D.C. and ended in Seattle. Then they headed back — when I spoke to them today, they were in Baltimore.

Hugg recalls the time they got the alert that HeyTell had gone live in the App Store — when they were in a customs line after a quick trip to Mexico during their journey. Harvey recalls having to reboot a server from the beach.

So how has HeyTell managed to grow so quickly? Mostly from word-of-mouth, the duo say. They haven’t put any traditional marketing dollars into the effort, instead they’re mainly spreading through their method of inviting other friends to check it out via SMS.

And the app has been bringing in revenues for the couple since day one. Part of that is the in-app add-ons you can buy, such as voice masking effects and the ability to communicate with large groups at once. But a bigger part is advertising in the app, Hugg says.

It’s enough money to keep the team the pair self-employeed and focusing on expansion. Hugg says they have the infrastructure in place now to scale to about 100 million users. And they’ll be focusing on international expansion soon in an attempt to get there.

Harvey says that users are sending about 1.5 million messages a day now on average. And that at the peak times, 35 messages are sent a second.

And while the group messaging apps like GroupMe and Beluga are getting a lot of love at the moment, HeyTell is much larger than either. And they’ve also been cited as one potential app that could be big at this years SXSW festival.

Hugg says that the app is perfect for organizing a gathering or talking to your relatives while seeing where they are on a map. But the key is that messages are quick. There’s no need for a formal “hello”, he notes — the idea is to get to the point. Hugg says this fits in with how people tend to communicate these days. It’s not long phone conversations, it’s quick burst messages. “Young people are our big demographic,” he notes.

To company is completely self-funded for the time being, but Hugg acknowledges that given their growth, they’ve had a lot of interest from potential investors. But the two would like to keep the company to themselves for a while, to see how big they can get it.

They note that they’re happy to be iPhone and Android-only for the time being, but they’re considering other mobile platforms as well.

You can find HeyTell in the App Store here. Or search for it in the Android Market.