Tucked in a nondescript office along Austin’s West Sixth Street, mobile app maker Zello could hardly be a less conspicuous startup.
“It’s a little software technology company” said CEO Bill Moore, whose company employs about a dozen people in Austin.
But the tiny company is suddenly a big player on the international political stage thanks to its smartphone app, which has become a go-to product for protesters in political uprisings in Ukraine, Venezuela and elsewhere.
The app – which essentially turns a smartphone into a walkie-talkie – has turned into an essential tool for protesters around the world who use it to communicate with each other after having other methods shut down by governments.
“It’s the main way that the organizers have communicated, and also individuals with their families,” Moore said.
Consequently, Moore’s company has gone from a sleepy startup to making international headlines. In the past week, since media coverage exploded, the company has gained about 5 million new users, bringing its total to about 53 million, Moore said.
“We’re proud that it’s an important tool,” Moore said. “We feel responsibility to make sure that it keeps working.”
Recently, the Venezuelan government even attempted to block the app – but Zello had an update available within 24 hours.
Eric Borja, a University of Texas doctoral sociology student who studies social media and social movements, said the most important characteristic of apps like Zello is their ability to let protesters communicate in real time.
Many modern protests are about controlling space, he said, and authorities will try to keep demonstrators confined to a certain location. But with real-time communication, it’s easier for organizers to pop up anywhere, he said.
“I think a lot of times, apps like Zello can be used to evade being pinned in,” Borja said. “That’s a new tactic.”
It’s also easier for Zello users to avoid government watchers, compared with Twitter or Facebook, he said.
“The most important aspect of all this is avoiding state surveillance,” Borja said. “It’s easy for people to be able to communicate with each other if you don’t know them personally, but it also allows them to avoid state surveillance.”
The company is regularly hearing from appreciative activists.
“For us, Zello has meant an unparallel help that is even hard to explain,” one protester wrote. “Zello has saved the lives of an insurmountable quantity of young people including myself.”
Another was more direct. “You guys are literally saving lives,” he wrote.
Zello came about through collaboration by two men from different worlds
Moore, who founded the popular radio app TuneIn, met Russian programmer Alexey Gavrilov in 2002 through a website for freelance programmers.
“I realized that this guy is amazing – high quality, off the charts smart,” Moore said.
Gavrilov had been working on a side project that would become Zello. It mimicked the push-to-talk functionality of some cell phones, but, unlike other walkie-talkie apps, users could communicate in real time, rather than leaving voicemails for each other. They could also communicate en masse via chat rooms – a function that would become essential to protesters later.
Eventually, Moore and Gavrilov decided to make a go of the new app, and Zello was born in Austin in late 2011. The pair decided to locate the company in Austin because it would be easy to lure talent here, Moore said.
The app came out the following year and quickly gained traction in Latin American countries, where it’s typically a top-10 downloaded app. It’s also popular in the Middle East and some Asian countries.
Today, the app has 53 million registered users.
“There is a massive audience because that’s how people communicate,” Moore said. “And nobody else has really done a good job with this, with how do you have a new kind of voice communication.”
For individuals, the app is free. For businesses, Zello charges a monthly fee for private chat networks. It’s used by trucking companies and hotel chains like Sheraton, Moore said.
Some people camp on Zello for hours at a time – spending time in chat rooms on topics ranging from storm chasing to dating.
“If you listen to most of them, it’s either like a bar or reality TV — individuals that know each other, and they come and go,” Moore said. “And their conversations are stupid or really funny or really sad. It’s a lot like a chat room, in that regard.”
The app is also good for coordinating events – which is probably how it became widely used by protesters in Turkey, Egypt, Ukraine and Venezuela.
And it was through political protests where Zello garnered headlines – especially after Venezuela’s government blocked it. But the company released an updated app within 24 hours after developers enlisted protesters to help them determine how it was being blocked.
“They tried to block it a few times since, but it’s a lot smarter, so it’s unlikely to be blocked soon,” Moore said.
Despite its newfound international fame, Zello is still a handful of people — about 15 total between Austin and a satellite office in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The company is breaking even or turning a slight profit, said Moore, who has gotten some interest from venture capitalists since all the media coverage began.
“It’s got to be the most successful consumer app out of Austin right now,” he said with a laugh.