Listen to this article
Finding the entrance to the office of London tech start-up What3Words is not easy. You can almost see it from the platform of Westbourne Park station, but to reach it, you must traverse the railway line and the Westway flyover and there is no apparent way to do this. My problem is solved by founder Chris Sheldrick coming to meet me outside a pub and leading me to his premises via a hidden walkway.
There are two reasons to mention these mundane facts. First is the possibility that Mr Sheldrick will be a zillionaire soon and not have to go out himself to find confused visitors. Second, his company happens to be in the business of providing addresses hundreds of times more precise than any postcode. What3Words’ own address, index.home.raft, would have narrowed the search for his office entrance to a 3m square. Another three words could have pinpointed the walkway. The FT’s main entrance, likewise, in What3Words terminology is pump.caves.rocket. A spot I selected randomly in the Sahara desert is hexagonal.crumbs.subwoofer.
The names are allotted by software, but checked manually to avoid rude and offensive words — and confusing homophones. Amusing combinations do remain, and there is a growing cult of finding them at What3Words.com.
I first heard of What3Words when it won the London Innovator of the Year award this year, and even then it sounded, frankly, rather boring. But after an hour with Mr Sheldrick and marketing director Giles Rhys Jones, I left index.home.raft convinced it was one of the cleverest — and most easy to monetise — innovative technologies I have seen. It could exponentially improve lives and economies across much of the world.
Julius Caesar famously divided Gaul into three parts. Mr Sheldrick and his team have gone a little further, dividing the earth’s surface — land, sea and ice caps included — into 57tn 3m-squares, each assigned a unique three-word identifier. What3Words’s entire address is just index.home.raft. Furthermore, a free smartphone app can identify any What3Words location in the world, even if the phone is offline.
“So right now,” Mr Sheldrick says, “we could arrange to meet in a bar in Moscow for a beer and not need to worry about complicated Russian addresses.” The three-word address could even take me to the 3 sq m area of the bar Mr Sheldrick is in. And not require me to turn on scandalously expensive roaming data on my phone.
Tricky Russian addresses are one thing but, according to What3Words, 75 per cent of the world’s population has no address; imagine the benefit to an African villager of having Amazon packages delivered as if he lived in a city with a formal postal address. Imagine the benefit to Amazon, too.
Then there are places you would imagine have street addresses, but do not. Japan, for example, is a delivery person’s nightmare: just one complication among many is that homes are numbered according to when they were built. Many Middle East countries’ addresses are famously shambolic. “Dubai expats filling in US tax forms often have to draw a picture of where they live,” says Mr Rhys Jones.
What3Words’ 11-strong team is already speaking to potential paying users, from post offices to global couriers. Logistics companies are particularly interested. According to Jack Levis, director of process management at UPS in a recent Capgemini Consulting paper, companies like his could reduce costs by $50m a year if each driver cut a mile a day from their route.
How did Mr Sheldrick, a musician by training, come up with the idea? He was a band manager and had to get trucks of equipment and performers to venues. “It was obvious that postcodes were not fit for purpose. A venue like the Birmingham NEC has one code and many entrances.” He would give 20-digit GPS co-ordinates to drivers for satnavs. When one driver reversed two numbers and ended up more than 50 miles from his Rome destination, Mr Sheldrick decided to take action.
The idea of dividing the world into 3m-squares came one evening at a mathematician friend’s flat in Cambridge. Using memorable words came from linguist Jack Waley-Cohen. “People were using our three-word addresses at Glastonbury to locate each other’s tents,” Mr Sheldrick says.
What3Words is still young and small but, unusually, needs no significant extra investment to become mature and big. The work, the idea, the algorithms, are all done. Next step, maybe — an office that people can find.
Get alerts on Innovation when a new story is published