Liz Gannes

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Voxer’s Secret Plan to Make Money From Mobile Messaging: Sell It to Companies

Usage of free and cheap mobile communications apps, from WhatsApp to Skype, has exploded around the world.

Voxer CEO Tom Katis

But one startup thinks it has a master plan that makes it more of a viable business than all the rest.

That’s Voxer, maker of the free walkie-talkie app, which today is launching paid apps and subscription services for businesses.

Voxer Pro — which will include “extreme notifications” that escalate if a person doesn’t pick up, and “live interrupt” mode for selected contacts, like old-school push-to-talk — will be a $2.99 in-app upgrade to the free app. And Voxer Pro for Business, which will include an admin portal and a live map of team members, will cost $4.95 today and then $9.95 starting later this year, when additional features come out.

Both of those are launching on Android and iPhone today, and coming to Windows Phone soon.

Selling enterprise apps and services was the secret plan all along, according to Voxer CEO Tom Katis, who founded the company in 2007 out of annoyance with military communication when he was serving in the U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. After years of work and scrapped efforts, the current Voxer app debuted in 2011.

Katis’s solution lies somewhere between mobile messaging and live conversation, with users able to speed through a voice message and start talking back to the sender live if they are both available.

“It’s hard to explain intellectually, even though the app is simple to use,” Katis said. “So we just launched the free version so people would think it was useful.”

Along the way, Voxer got caught up in the consumer mobile messaging craze. It had the 13th most-downloaded iOS app in 2012. And it raised $30 million from Institutional Venture Partners, Intel and other investors when it was shooting up the growth charts.

But those investors were clued in on the plan to eventually sell Voxer to “people who value response time over etiquette,” such as those working in a trucking business, driving taxis or serving in the military, according to Katis.

“Going after consumers is a race to the bottom,” Katis argued. “We’re not just another texting app. We increase productivity in ways that nothing else satisfies.”

When Voxer mapped out its users’ social graphs, it found dense networks of people who were already putting the product to work. For instance, 21,000 Mary Kay cosmetics sales reps were already using the service, Katis said. Voxer Pro beta testers include a cab company in New York and a window-cleaning company in Seattle.

Katis said he would like to build the Nextel of the future, with a lucrative business model supported by loyal users of this near-live mobile technology — for which Voxer has some 94 issued patents.

The key to understanding Voxer, Katis said, is how fast it transitions users into live conversations. Today, when a Voxer user stops pushing the record button, their correspondent usually starts talking within two to four seconds.

“The more it’s live, the more it’s used,” Katis said.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik