Meet the Founder

what3words: using three magic words to reinvent the navigation space

Leah Montebello
February 21, 2019

Simpatica sits down with Chris Sheldrick, CEO and Co-Founder of what3words, a proprietary geocode system and app designed to identify any location around the world using a unique combination of three words.

Where did the idea for what3words come from?

Chris: I used to work in the music industry organising live events around the world. I quickly discovered that in the music world, people struggle with poor addressing every day – getting lost trying to find events was pretty common. On one occasion, in Italy, a driver unloaded all the equipment an hour north of Rome, instead of an hour south of Rome. And on a slightly worse day, a keyboard player called me and said, ‘Chris, don’t panic, but we may have just sound-checked at the wrong wedding’.

To get people and equipment to the right places, and on time, I tried sharing GPS coordinates instead. But entering 16 numbers into a device, or even sharing them over a phone call, was really unreliable. So I decided to find a solution. A mathematician friend and I discussed the idea of using words to create a more usable and less error-prone version of the latitude and longitude coordinate system, and he subsequently wrote an early version of the what3words algorithm on the back of an envelope.

How does what3words actually work?

Chris: We’ve taken the globe, divided it into a grid of 3 metre squares, and given each one a unique address made of three random words. For example, the front door to what3words’ London office can be found at ///filled.count.soap. what3words is a free app available for iOS and Android. It’s also available as a piece of code  – an API or SDK which we provide to businesses so they can integrate what3words’ functionality into their own maps, apps, and websites.

Today, thousands of businesses use what3words to improve efficiencies and customer experience, from e-commerce and logistics companies to travel, ride-hailing, and navigation apps.

Why did you think the addressing industry needed to be disrupted?

Chris: While most of us don’t think about it every day, the world has an addressing problem. Even in the best-addressed cities and countries, street addressing is failing to meet the demands of today’s on-the-go services like taxi-hailing, food delivery, same-day deliveries, and e-commerce. Globally, 70% of addresses will not direct you to the front door, with 74% of people saying guests, services, and deliveries struggle to find them. (*Based on a survey of 3,000 respondents aged 18-70 across the UK, US, and Germany conducted by OnePoll.) Inaccurate addressing is costly to businesses, frustrating for customers, and is hampering innovation.

And in the developing world, the need for better addressing is clear: the Universal Postal Union estimates that 75% of countries have poorly-maintained addressing systems, or none at all. This obstructs access to healthcare, the ability to register a birth, vote, open a bank account, and be found in an emergency. It also hampers the growth of developing nations.

It’s clear that better addressing can reduce businesses’ environmental impact, ease pressure on crowded cities, fuel economic growth in developing nations, and save lives.

How many combinations of what3words are there? What is your favourite combination?

Chris: When you divide the world into 3 metre squares, you end up with 57 trillion of them. Addressing the entire globe in English meant generating 57 trillion what3words addresses, requiring around 40,000 unique English words. Add in that what3words is now available in 50 languages, and that’s a grand total of 864 trillion unique what3words addresses!

My favourite has to be ///awestruck.whereas.fixation – a 3 metre square deep in the foothills of the flaming cliffs in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia.

You have had a huge impact over the past year. What has been the proudest moment?

Chris: We are on an unprecedented mission, so our milestones can be incredibly unique to our business. One significant achievement has been our growth in Germany; we’ve seen a 270% increase in app users in Germany over the last year to date, we have 40 German emergency control rooms now using what3words, and we’ve seen a 71% increase in partners across industries like automotive, e-commerce, logistics, and on-demand food delivery.

Last year, we achieved a world first in the automotive industry. Mitsubishi Motors Corporation became the first car company to offer what3words offline, enabling drivers to find and navigate to any precise location in the world using just three words. Moments like this really position what3words at the forefront of in-car navigation technology. It’s really thanks to the support of ambitious and innovative partners that more and more companies around the world are embracing what3words to help improve their customer experience and drive business efficiencies.

And finally, we fully reopened our London office at ///filled.count.soap in September. Having the team together again makes me really excited for the future and everything we have to come.

What is the dream for what3words?

What started as a solution to some lost musicians has become a technology that’s proving beneficial in so many ways – from making last-mile deliveries more efficient to helping emergency services find people in trouble. Our mission is to give everyone a simple way to communicate location in a language they understand, making the world an easier, safer, and more efficient place for all.

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