I had the pleasure of talking to co-founder and CEO Chris Sheldrick of what3words. What3words is currently one of the most exciting startups in the mobility segment and offers a precise and easy way to talk about a specific location. The founders have divided the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each of these squares a unique 3-word address.
Lastmile.zone: Hi Chris, thanks for your time, I have a few questions for you about what3words. Firstly who came up with the idea?
Chris: I worked in the music industry – organising live music events around the world. When bands and equipment constantly got lost trying to find venues and festival locations. It became clear that addressing just wasn’t good enough, and the problem was universal. We tried giving out GPS coordinates, but they were hard for people to input into their car or device, and near enough impossible to communicate correctly over the phone. Mistakes were easy to make and hard to pick up on until it was too late. Finally I sat down with a friend to see if we could find a solution that was as accurate as coordinates – but concise and memorable too.
I then enlisted a friend’s help and together we devised a way to turn accurate GPS coordinates into user-friendly word combinations. The first 3 word address algorithm was born on the back of an envelope.
Lastmile.zone: What were the first steps as a startup?
Chris: Our first step was to get people thinking about how poor addressing actually is, and prove there is a use case for our technology. People have been using street addresses their entire lives without questioning them. Yet still, people get lost, packages go astray and satnavs struggle to take us to a precise location. But, until people are really challenged to think about it, some people don’t inherently feel there’s a problem. We had to quickly and clearly demonstrate the problem – finding examples of when poor street addressing frustrates individuals and cost companies billions. As soon as people saw how poor addressing affects them personally, they immediately saw the need for our solution.
Today, users of what3words span large businesses, governments, NGOs and individuals. After we began to get people thinking about addressing, our next step was to identify the ‘ambitious innovators’ within these diverse groupings. These were the people who weren’t afraid to try something new, and immediately saw the possibilities what3words offered.
“At the beginning of 2018, Daimler acquired a 10% stake in what3words in order to use the technology in Mercedes-Benz vehicles in the future.
Lastmile.zone: Let us understand a bit about the founders of what3words please:
Christ: what3words was founded by an eclectic group – a musician, a quizmaster and a Cambridge mathematician. I myself enlisted the help of two friends, Jack Waley-Cohen and Mohan Ganesalingam, to devise the core algorithm, build the first wordlist and create the app and website. Jack, prior to what3words founded QuizQuizQuiz, the UK’s largest quiz event business, whilst Mohan, following his PhD at Cambridge University, was working as a Research Fellow at Trinity.
Lastmile.zone: Which of the three business areas you highlighted to me came first?
Chris: One of the biggest challenges facing global logistics firms is in finding a standardised way to locate and confirm delivery destinations, which is why it was a logical first industry to target. National addressing systems vary by country and are often far from adequate. GPS-based navigation systems are consistent, accurate and machine-friendly but difficult to understand and prone to human error. Aramex, the global logistics giant was an early adopter of our technology, where it uses the system for its e-commerce fulfilment operations. The 3 word address construct is always consistent, whether a package is bound for the coast of Africa or the heart of Asia. And each unique address can be used by tracking software and delivery drivers alike.
“Our long-term goal is to be one of the global addressing standards.”
Lastmile.zone: Your growth explained…
Chris: We started the company in March 2013, and for a while it was just three people. Now we have around 55 employees and we’re growing so fast that we hope to reach over 100 shortly. To get to where we are today we put a lot of energy into seeking out the right investors to bring the business credibility, contacts, experience, and knowledge as well as funding. We also invested heavily in language development from the outset, as we knew this needed to be a globally accessible solution. what3words is currently available in 22 languages, and this will soon increase to 28 including Chinese, Japanese and Hindi. When our 28th language launches, 3.8 billion people will be able to use 3 word addresses in their home language, which is 51% of the world.
Lastmile.zone: Some financials if possible…
Chris: We are incredibly lucky to have a range of industry-experts backing what3words, all drawing upon extensive expertise, following successful careers in the automotive, technology, venture capital, and challenger sectors.
Earlier this year Daimler acquired a 10% stake in the business, following the announcement that Mercedes-Benz are to launch the world’s first car with built-in what3words voice navigation. Our Series B investment round was led by Aramex, with other notable investors including Deutsche Bahn and Intel Capital.
Chris, thanks for you time and good luck on for the future growth of your business.