Digital Innovators: Q&A with what3words co-founder Chris Sheldrick

Chris Sheldrick
what3words is used worldwide within many industries including automotive, logistics and e-commerce. (Source: what3words)

what3words has divided the world into 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique address made from three dictionary words, thus offering the simplest way to communicate location.

Last year what3words was identified as one of 50 of the freshest and most inspiring digital companies using technology and innovation to shake up their sectors in our Digital Innovators Power List. Following a public vote and after careful consideration by supporting partners and judges, it was named as one of the top 10 Digital Innovators. Later this year two of these companies will be identified as a "life changer" or a "market transformer".

Co-founder and CEO Chris Sheldrick tells us his long-term vision for the company and gives us insight into why it's one of the UK's leading digital innovators.

Talk me through the business. What sparked the idea? How do you compete with other players/what sets you apart?

I used to work in the music events industry and found that bands and equipment constantly got lost trying to find venues and festival locations. It happened so frequently, we even had to hire someone to be the person you called when you thought you’d arrived, but then realised you hadn't. We had a few notable incidents, not least when a band called us to say they’d just sound-checked at the wrong person’s wedding...

It became clear to me that addressing just wasn't good enough, and the problem was universal. I 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. 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. Later on, the first what3words algorithm was born on the back of an envelope. As for the competition, other companies attempting to simplify addressing use combinations of letters and numbers, which are far less human-friendly and more prone to mistakes. what3words is unique in that it is based on words. This makes it accessible and easy for people to remember, use and share with others. We also have a unique AutoSuggest feature which identifies and correct mistakes. If you’re in London, for example, looking for the what3words office and you accidentally type ‘index.home.rafts’ instead of ‘index.home.raft’, AutoSuggest will let you know that the 3 word address you’ve entered is in Western Australia, and suggest that you might’ve meant the similar address in Bayswater, London.

Voice is the next frontier of user interaction. Voice powered devices are now becoming an integral part of our homes and cars. Speaking 3 word addresses whilst driving provides a more convenient and accurate way to reach a destination, avoiding issues with ambiguous addresses and enabling us to pinpoint specific entrances to buildings and events.

How has your company grown in the past few years? What are the most crucial things you have done to grow it?

We started the company in March 2013, and for a while, it was just three of us. Now we have around 50 employees and we’re growing so fast that we hope to reach over 70 employees in the near future. 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 14 languages, and this will soon increase to 28 including Chinese, Japanese and Hindi. When our 28th language launches, 3.8bn people will be able to use 3 word addresses in their home language, which is 51 per cent of the world.

Where do you hope to be in a year/two years? What is your long-term vision for the business?

Our long-term goal is to be a global addressing standard, so everyone in the world has a simple, accurate and reliable address they can use whenever they need it. We want businesses, governments and services worldwide to use 3 word addresses to become more efficient, and improve their customer experience. At the same time, we look forward to showing how better addressing can reduce businesses’ environmental impact, ease pressure on crowded cities, fuel economic growth in developing nations and save lives.

This year Mercedes-Benz are launching the world’s first car with built-in what3words voice navigation. It’s a huge achievement for us and we expect the next couple of years to see our technology integrated by lots more global brands of a similar calibre. On the product side, we have exciting new features for our core what3words app and also the newly launched 3WordPhoto app, as well as new products working with speech recognition and OCR technologies. We also expect to open more local offices to add to those we’ve opened this year in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and Johannesburg, South Africa.

How do you see the state of the market in which your business operates? What are the biggest challenges you will face in the coming years and how do you hope to overcome them?

We operate in diverse markets including automotive, e-commerce and logistics – all fast-growing markets that are experiencing rapid technological change – with the aim of providing the next generation of customer experience and increasing efficiency.

We’re also seeing rapid growth in huge developing markets such as India and a range of African nations, particularly with the e-commerce boom. In many of these countries, mobile payment systems have leapfrogged the banking system entirely, and what3words provides another piece of the puzzle, allowing online retailers to bypass poor addressing infrastructure to offer accurate home delivery.

Our biggest challenge is that we’re trying to create a huge, global behavioural change. People have been using street addresses their entire lives, without questioning them. They get lost, packages go astray and billions of people worldwide have no address at all but, until they’re challenged to really think about it, some people don’t inherently feel there’s a problem. We’re overcoming that challenge by refining how we clearly and quickly demonstrate the problem, finding examples (and there are so many) of when poor street addressing frustrates individuals and costs companies billions. As soon as people see how poor addressing affects them personally, they immediately see the need for our solution.

How important is innovation to your business? How do you engender a culture of forward thinking and creativity with your staff?

The what3words team is a very special bunch of people. They’ve all been hired because they stand out as creative, forward-thinking and driven individuals. We support this and make the most of their talents with a very open and egalitarian culture where anyone can add their ideas to a conversation, test a new product or suggest a marketing idea, no matter which team they are part of. We also get together as a team to share activities and interests from outside work in our ‘Wednesday Lunch Series’. Talk subjects have ranged from ‘The semantics of lying and misleading’ from a member of our language team, to ‘Living on a narrow boat in London’ from one of our copywriters. It’s good fun, helps us get to know each other and sparks off interesting conversations.

What is it about your company that makes it one of the UK’s leading digital innovators?

We have a unique solution to a problem very few others are tackling, which means that we don’t really have a precedent to follow. We have to work things out for ourselves, test ideas and refine our strategy as we grow, especially when it comes to new markets and cultures we haven’t worked in before. This keeps us on our toes and means we have to really investigate and question everything we do.

Look out for the next Q&A with BenevolentAI, another top 10 Digital Innovator, on 13 February 2018.

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