Inspiration

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Trailblazers: Addressing the entire world at what3words

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what3words is the simplest way to talk about any location. This London-based startup has given every 3m x 3m square on the planet, a fixed and unique three word address which uses ordinary, everyday vocabulary across 14 languages. By saying 'table.chair.spoon' for example, you’re talking about a specific three metre square somewhere in the world.

Winners of a Grand Prix for Innovation at Cannes Lions, these trailblazers have allowed even the most remote locations on earth to access a simple and usable address with all their own apps and code. Here CMO, Giles Rhys Jones talks to us about the power of addressing the entire world, and how his team have learnt to overcome the response: “But this is the way it’s always been”.

Hi Giles, tell us a bit about the what3words evolution. How has the company developed and what was the initial idea?

Chris, our co-founder started a company that organised live music events around the world and faced the frustrations that come with poor addressing on a daily basis. When street addresses were not good enough he tried getting everyone to use GPS coordinates, but they were very prone to error and caused enormous confusion - seeing guests, bands, singers and equipment strewn across various hillsides in Rome at a prestigious wedding was a particular low point for him.

Over a cup of tea with a mathematician friend, he shared his frustrations. Together they worked out that a list of 40,000 words was enough to give every 3m x 3m square on the planet its own unique, three word address. An early version of the what3words algorithm was written there and then on the back on an envelope.

That was four years ago and today we are being used in over 170 countries by individuals, businesses and NGOs. We have signed partnership agreements with five national postal services; we were used at the SuperBowl50, the Rio Olympics and the World Humanitarian Summit to coordinate security; utilised at Glastonbury and Burning Man festivals; and we were used to coordinate filming and set locations on Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One production.

What area of business shows off the what3words capabilities in their full glory?

Ecommerce. Delivery and on-demand services are where we deliver huge business efficiencies. UPS have stated that if they save each of their drivers one mile per day that equates to a $50M in annual savings. Poor addressing means that a driver can walk an extra 200 or 300 yards per delivery. 100 times a day.

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Wow, so what are you guys working to develop at the moment?

Automotive - there are 81 ‘Springfields’ in the US and 19 ‘Church Roads’ in London alone. Search for a building and the pin drops in the centre rather than the entrance because traditional addressing systems were never designed for accurate car navigation. In the autonomous vehicles of the future where you don’t have a steering wheel this will be a big problem.

Voice will increasingly become the input platform but it won’t work well until we fix the problems with addresses. Later this year you will be able to say to a car: “Take me to toffee.branched.pyramid” and it will know exactly where you are going.

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What's been key to your success so far?

We have a truly unique product. Memorability and usability are our key differentiators from competitors because people’s ability to retain three words in short-term memory is almost perfect.

Mind you, it can be a challenge for some people to accept that they now have the word ‘cabbage’ in their address.

We can imagine! What's been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome as you've grown?

“But this is the way it always has been.”

What advice would you give to startups looking to overcome similar hurdles and achieve the same level of success as what3words then?

We’ve learned that execution is key, regardless of whether you have a disruptive idea or not. The more disruptive the idea, the more people will seek credibility to see that the idea is being put to good use or being used by businesses and consumers. It’s essential to focus all your time on the ambitious innovators who want to be the first movers in their field, and leave those who need external validation for later.

It’s also essential to have a physical presence even though you have a digital product. We attend a large number of industry events and ensure we’re talked about. Each new integration is noticed and people want to be associated with the company that is changing the industry.

 

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