Tech.London’s Speaker Sneak-Peek: EXCLUSIVE Interview with Chris Sheldrick, CEO of what3words

Apr 10, 2016

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Speaking this week at the Millennial 20/20 Summit, Chris Sheldrick gives Tech.London sneak preview!

Chris Sheldrick had a problem. No one could find him.

Having spent 10 years in the music industry organizing live events, he was constantly facing huge logistical problems when it came to locations. Not booking venues, mind you, but actually finding them. Gigs would often require staff, performers and equipment to show up in niche locations, large arenas needing specific entrances, or even in open fields; places that simply weren’t on the map….or even the GPS. The problem became so bad that, in his TEDxINSTEAD video, Chris jokes about having someone on the schedule dubbed "The Person You Call When You Think You’ve Arrived & Then Figure Out That You Are Actually Lost."

There had to be a better way. Enter what3words, the world’s first truly universal addressing system.

Chris will be speaking this week at the Millennial 20/20 Summit, Tech.London’s Spotlight Event for April. We were fortunate enough to sit down with Chris to discuss the development of what3words, how it is disrupting the market and what’s it going to do to actually change the world.

Tech.London: Tell us about what3words. What makes it different from other navigation devices?

Chris Sheldrick: what3words is a global address system.

The address system that exists today simply does not work. We demand more of addresses than what they were designed to give us. Post codes were invented in the 1950s and housing numbers before that. Out in the countryside, a villa in Europe, or even in the middle of the desert, none of these have an easy way to describe the location of them. GPS was opened to the masses in 2000 by Bill Clinton but with its 18 digits is so difficult to remember and use without errors.

what3words solves this problem by dividing the world into 57 trillion 3-metre squares, and every three-metre square is given a three-word title that is globally unique.

We’re not mapping. We’re not navigation. We just do addressing. We are the only people who are reinventing addresses.

Out of the triumvirate of mapping, navigation and addressing there are dramatic advances in the first two: you can navigate from A to B with state of the art tech, crowdsourced traffic information, image recognition with near real-time satellite imagery but the central part of the experience – identifying a specific location – has not evolved. The problem is that both A and B might not be exactly where you think they are.

Tech.London: So that means if I am standing in Table.Square.Spoon, for example, this is the only Table.Square.Spoon in the world?

Chris Sheldrick: Exactly!

Tech.London: Does that mean that there is a Spoon.Square.Table out there somewhere?

Chris Sheldrick: Yes, but chances are that it’s nowhere near you. To avoid confusion, in addition to a recommendation function, squares with similar names are kept as far away from each other as possible. Doing this avoids human error and stops you from getting lost. So, if you meant Table.Square.Spoon and instead entered Spoon.Square.Table and it pops up in Africa, chances are you’re not going to head off across the ocean.

Tech.London: Before we dive too deep into the details of what3words itself, first tell me a bit about your own background.

Chris Sheldrick: I was in the music business doing live events and we were usually somewhere new everyday. Some addresses wouldn’t lead you where you actually needed to be, some places had specific entrances and it just proved to be really difficult. I originally tried to solve the problem GPS coordinates. But they were long and difficult to communicate. I remember one concert we did in Italy where someone accidentally showed up one hour North instead of one hour South.

GPS is great for computers, but people need something different. People can work with what3words. 3 words are easy to remember, easy to communicate and similar locations are kept purposely far away.

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When speaking to Chris, you can’t help but relate to the problem that he and what3words are working to solve. Who hasn’t been desperately trying to find their way in unfamiliar territory, been failed by Google Maps or been separated from their group at a large concert.

*Loud Music* "What? Where are you? By the northeast entrance, Gate 3A." Right. Helpful.

But what3words sounds not only like the perfect solution for the directionally-challenged (such as myself) but also, frankly, a lot of fun. When I suggested that what3words should team up with the reality show The Amazing Race, Chris informed me that what3words had already been used by the Montreal Urban Race where four teams embark on a journey full of puzzles and challenges set up around the island of Montreal. And going beyond simple navigation, The British Museum has tagged more than a million artifacts with the three-word addresses of where they were found.

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Tech.London: Who is your target customer?

Chris Sheldrick: We are focusing on three specific sectors.

1. Navigation and mapping

2. Logistics and ecommerce

3. Travel, sport and leisure

Every travel company should be using the three-word address.

We are getting used by everyone from caravanners and bikers to aid organisations and even municipal governments. The United Nations use us for disaster reporting, and at Glastonbury we were used by first responders to medical emergencies. People also found us pretty useful to find their tents and friends!

Tech.London: How do you think what3words is going to disrupt the market?

Chris Sheldrick: We’re going to become the global standard for communicating location. In 2016, addresses are not fit for all the purposes that we need.

Tech.London: As you know Tech.London’s focus is building the tech and startup community in London. So keeping that in mind, why did you decide to start what3words in London?

Chris Sheldrick: I think London is a really important hub for all of the places we want to do business. Deliveries are problematic, so we can do a lot of business here, but beyond that, being in London allows us to be in close proximity to all of the countries that we can work with.

Tech.London: And speaking of the London startup community, as the CEO of a startup, what resources in the London ecosystem have contributed to the success of what3words? (For example, co-working spaces, accelerators, networking groups, etc.)

Chris Sheldrick: The SEIS and ESI Investment Schemes. Definitely. They are the biggest driving force in angel investments.

Tech.London: what3words has won quite a few awards.

- UN Universal Postal Union Recognition Award

- The Tech Awards Laureate

- Cannes Lion Grand Prix for Innovation

- BT Ingenious Award, Eurobest Grand Prix for Innovation

- Nominet Trust 100

- Selected as an Innovation Ambassador for Great Britain

- Best Mobile Startup Award at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona

Congratulations. Any comment?

Chris Sheldrick: We were recently shortlisted in two categories at the Webbys, so we are one of the five best ideas in the world in both "use of location" and "technical innovation."

We are so proud and privileged to be honoured by the global community, and the range of industry awards are particularly special. In Cannes, we won for creativity, at MWC for business potential, and the UN Universal Postal Union Recognition Award is significant as well. It’s great to be recognized by those you are positively disrupting and it’s the array of awards that make it truly special.

Tech.London: So you are going to be speaking at the Millennial 20/20. Care to give us a bit of a sneak preview of what you’ll be speaking on?

Chris Sheldrick: I’ll be speaking on what it’s like running a new business that is bridging emerging and developed markets. What we’re doing applies to the whole world and here’s why.

My colleague Clare is also speaking about the applications for the travel market.

Tech.London: What is the most important thing our readers should know about what3words?

Chris Sheldrick: I want your readers to think about how what3words, how precise addresses, can transform their business or sector.

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what3words is truly a unique disruptive idea that is beautiful in its simplicity and has almost limitless applications. If you would like to learn more, be sure to check out their website and don’t miss Chris speaking live at the Millennial 20/20 Summit, running this THUR and FRI, 13-14th April.

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