Location.location.location: What3Words co-founder wants to transform mapping

Innovator Chris Sheldrick is on a mission to give everyone on the planet an address with the help of his mapping app, What3Words.

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If that sounds like gibberish to you, don’t worry, you are still in the majority. But if Chris Sheldrick, chief executive and co-founder of What3Words, has his way, some day it will be how the world thinks about addresses.

What3Words is an app and online platform that divides the planet into a grid and then allocates each of the 57 trillion three-square-metre boxes a three-word address.

Individuals can use the app and the website for free but if any businesses want to use What3Words in a labour-intensive manner, they have to pay.

"It’s something that people want to get behind. We are making positive changes in the world, which investors believe in" 


Since it launched in 2013, What3Words has managed to amass an eclectic roster of clients, including the United Nations, which uses the technology to collect data in disaster zones, and Mongolia’s postal service.

The platform has also been bestowed with two of the communications industry’s highest awards – a Cannes Lion Grand Prix for innovation and a D&AD black Pencil in the "creativity for good" category.

"It was phenomenal to win the top prize in such a competitive category at Cannes but it was especially great being awarded for the things we thought were important too, like the simplicity and universality of the app," Sheldrick says. "This lowers the barrier for anyone to have an address."


The idea for What3Words came to Sheldrick when he was running a live music booking and production agency – of which he remains a non-executive director and which shares an office with his new company.

Logistics had been a big part of his job and Sheldrick found that if he was sending directions and addresses to 30 people, there would always be a phone call or two from people saying things like: "Er… I’m under a lamp by a hedge, is that right?"

"Postcodes are fine for some places but they are not much help if you are going to somewhere like Wembley Stadium, which has one address but 12 car parks," Sheldrick explains.

"I tried to solve the problem with GPS but the eight-digit figures are too complicated to remember. There was one instance where we had a lorry driver that confused a four with a five and ended up one hour north of Rome instead of one hour south of the city."

Sheldrick took his problem to Jack Waley-Cohen, a friend and fellow Etonian who had a head for numbers (he is a three-time Countdown winner). Between them they worked out that there were enough three-word combinations in the English language to map the world. And so they started doing just that. Neither had experience of setting up an app. 

"This was us coming at this thing cold," Sheldrick says. "The people who have attempted it before have acknowledged the same problem but their solutions have always been to use other alphanumeric codes. The key thing here is that it’s easy to grasp."

To begin with, Sheldrick and Waley-Cohen (who helped co-found What3Words and is now the company’s chief operating officer) worked on the project in their evenings but it soon became a full-time gig. Sheldrick says it took about six months to produce a minimum viable product and a year to get the app ready for business use. After 18 months, the business attracted its first client, the navigation app NavMe!.


Campaign asked Sheldrick if What3Words had linked up with any of the tech giants that are changing the way we shop or interact with each other, such as Amazon or Facebook, but he demurred, saying he was in discussion with some of the bigger internet brands but could not talk about it. 

What is public knowledge is that Intel Capital, the venture capital arm of the tech giant, led a Series A funding round in November 2015 in which What3Words secured $3.5m. This followed an initial $500,000 round of seed funding and a $1m top-up in 2014.

"We’ve been really enthused by investors’ appetite for this," Sheldrick says. "It’s a really bold mission but it’s something that people want to get behind. We’re making a lot of positive changes in the world, which are things that investors believe in."

Indeed, although Sheldrick says he came up with the idea for What3Words "as a solution to a technical problem", he has since gone on record stating the link between poverty and an absence of an address, quoting economist Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital: "Without an address, you live outside the law."

In a bid to strengthen its brand and focus its marketing, What3Words added Giles Rhys Jones to the management team as chief marketing officer. Rhys Jones was digital strategy director at Ogilvy & Mather before joining What3Words in 2014.

"It seems that people either do or don’t think addressing is a problem and getting those people to understand that this can be a big problem has been our challenge, and we do it using examples from people’s lives. Giles has been instrumental in getting the message  out there," Sheldrick says.

As a result, What3Words has identified its core markets as navigation and mapping, logistics and ecommerce, and travel, sport and leisure.


The next step for the company is to release its voice-recognition software, and then extrapolate that technology to enable you to get in your car and give a three-word command that then maps your journey.

Sheldrick makes it all sound so painless, barring his mention of a few "bumps" in the development of the platform. Not for him and What3Words the questions of privacy that dog social media, the threatened cabbies that plague Uber or the other upheavals faced by tech companies seeking to overhaul traditional ways of doing things.

Indeed, if What3Words gets critical mass, it might be the smoothest disruption you have seen. Unless you happen to work at Ordinance Survey, of course.

What others are saying about What3Words:

"This has the potential to become a new global standard." Robert Barr OBE professor of geography, Manchester University 

"The best navigation idea since the Tube map." Rory Sutherland The Spectator

"Knowing where people and places are is a huge challenge for development organisations, particularly those working in the more remote rural, last-mile locations across the developing world. Whether it be a home for a health visit or a water pump that needs repair, at the moment, pinpointing and mapping specific locations is an unwelcome burden for organisations already dealing with some of the most challenging issues facing the communities with which they work. What3Words has the potential to revolutionise the mapping and locating of key places and allow people who live and work there to share them with each other for the first time." Ken Banks founder, kiwanja.net