There are many ways conventional addresses fail us. It can be as trivial as trying to find a friend at a music festival to the more harrowing task of navigating in a developing country; in both cases Google Maps simply doesn’t cut it. These situations are solved by navigating to that “really tall tree on the left” or “turn right after the third, no the fourth, stop sign and it’ll be obvious.” I’m not sure who it’s obvious to, but addresses and location are not straightforward to many. Most people operate under the perception that Google knows where everything is, but in reality, this is not the case (and they actually buy addresses from governments).
Four billion people today do not have formal government addresses. This predominantly affects developing countries, but in developed countries, original addressing systems established 100’s of years ago are not as intuitive as technologists assume them to be. These systems are often lazily developed and don’t account for what is granular enough to be helpful. For example, a POI dot on a building doesn’t solve finding a fire hydrant near a building for first responders, a freight elevator for deliveries, or a gas valve for maintenance.
I re-learned the lesson that traditional maps only go so far on a recent trip to Marrakesh where I have never felt so lost. The reality is that maps don’t do justice to satellite images, and there is a gigantic arbitrage opportunity in closing that gap.
At the time Wildcat was already deep in diligence with what3words about its audacious new addressing system which has built a solution to these problems, but nothing can show you how valuable a technology is like living it.
What3words has divided the entire world into a grid of 57 trillion 3m by 3m squares and assigned each square a unique three-word address to truly communicate where things are.
How do you do this today? GPS has a 5–10m variance, traditional addresses aren’t always up to date, which leaves you with latitude and longitude coordinates. Communicating with these coordinates is complicated and easy to confuse. What3words has turned these long sequences of numbers into an easy to digest three-word string.
Why three words? Studies on memory show that words are easier to memorize than numbers, and sequences made up of fewer, shorter words are easier to remember.
What3words is also non-hierarchical, which means that every square is roughly the same size and has no biases based on location. Better words ranked by length and commonality are prioritized for cities, but otherwise it’s randomized.
To optimize the technical challenge of keeping an address as short as possible, mapping the world took 40,000 English words. The company translated the world’s landmasses into 28 other languages each using 25,000 words and left the oceans in English. The maps are based on a person’s native tongue, and never change based location, so a person using Russian uses their Russian map in South America, Australia, etc. the same way that I can use the English map in Russia.
So now instead of getting very lost on my way to the main square of Jemaaa El-Fna in Marrakesh, what3words provides me with thousands of waypoints to use both for my own sanity, and to communicate to my travel buddies how to navigate the city’s winding streets to the fruit stand at bravo.open.volcano in the middle of the square.
What3words CEO and co-founder Chris Sheldrick, an Eton and Kings College Grad, and an accomplished musician in his own right, was managing bands and producing events around the globe when he came up with the idea after his bands kept getting lost.
A lot of shows took place in rural areas that were not always mapped. Suppliers couldn’t find entrances; bands couldn’t find their way from their hotels to their gigs.
Looking for a solution, Chris tried distributing addresses as well as GPS coordinates. Both failed.
Chris even provided drivers with 20-digit GPS coordinates. A commonplace example for Chris at the time, in Rome a band reversed two numbers and ended up more than 50 miles from his destination.
Realizing there had to be a better way to solve this problem, he enlisted the help of his longtime friend and Cambridge alumna, Mohan Ganesalingam who happens to be one of the top mathematicians in the world, to help design the system.
The team’s strength extends beyond Chris and Mohan. For example, I have yet to meet someone who isn’t immediately impressed by Clare Jones, their Chief Commercialization Officer. Every startup I know needs a Clare Jones on their team.
Although what3words has no direct competition, many companies have tried to create local standards for addressing in developing countries. So far, the solutions have not been easy to use and not one has caught on internationally. Even Google has a geocode on addresses, but I bet you’ve never used it.
What3words converts latitude and longitude coordinates precisely, and works on it’s own, offline, and/or can live on top of it traditional mapping companies’ infrastructure making what3words a partner rather than a competitor.
For example, take any number of companies doing aerial or land drone for delivery, they have their own sophisticated mapping system based on latitude and longitude to know where you are, but if you don’t have a good way to communicate where you are it renders even the best technology useless.
The majority of the companies we invest in are in what we define as the Traction Gap– the time critical time in a startup’s journey between launching an initial product (IPR) and achieving minimum viable traction (MVT) on its way to scaling. For reference, this journey has four milestone points, Initial Product Release, when a product first goes to customers for feedback; Minimum Viable Product, when people start paying you; Minimum Viable Repeatability, when you have your unit economics down and have a cohort of users that love your product; Minimum Viable Traction, where you have scaled your repeatable systems and turned on the customer acquisition or revenue (depending on your business model).
What3words has it’s MVP and core technology in place, and they are driving sales and international partnerships with Blue Chip customers in automotive and logistics as well as countries. Corporate clients include Mercedes-Benz, Navmii, Aramex, and Domino’s Pizza. What3words has satellite offices in Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Germany. Its API is being integrated into businesses, apps and services. It works across all platforms and devices, in multiple languages, offline and with voice recognition.
By our measures, what3words is fast approaching MVR.
What3words created a simple three-word addressing system that offers a precise and incredibly easy way to talk about location.
They invented an intelligent system and are clearly driving workforce innovation that effects every vertical it touches. I’m most excited about their versatility to be both an interface for frontier technologies and also be a driver of socioeconomic growth in developing countries.
And the next time I’m traveling — be it in Marrakesh or elsewhere — I won’t be lost.