Traditional addresses don’t work. That’s the argument of London startup what3words, which says such addresses are expensive to provide, restrictive and prone to error. The company’s answer is to divide the world into 57 trillion squares and give them each quirky, three-word addresses that what3words says can track down pretty much any place on the planet, from homes in an Indian slum to a refugee camp in Uganda to an alleyway in Hong Kong.
“It’s user-friendly GPS,” said Giles Jones, the company’s chief marketing officer. “Everybody’s got a story of where location has not been good enough.” The idea came from what3words CEO Chris Sheldrick, a former live music organizer. Sheldrick often grew frustrated at poor addressing when he needed to drop off equipment at a convention center or direct a band where to go, Jones said.
Addresses “either didn’t exist, they weren’t accurate enough, or they were really difficult to communicate,” Jones added. Sheldrick started using GPS coordinates to fix that problem, but the numeric combinations were difficult to remember or share with others. One day, about six years ago, he and a friend stumbled onto a solution.
“There was a dictionary on the table, and they were like, ‘I wonder how many different words it would take to build a system using words,'” Jones said. The answer is roughly 40,000, strung together in groups of three. It works like this: Say you want to meet a friend at the mall, but there are multiple entrances and no easy way to explain where you are. By using the what3words mapping app, you can mark out the specific building entrance and tap on a virtual square to conjure up a random phrase fixed to that location, like “caramel.kingdom.signature” — an actual phrase tied to a location in Hong Kong.
The app then lets you open up the address in another mapping provider, such as Google Maps or Apple Maps, which can direct you there. The app, which started with only English as an option, has since expanded to include 36 languages, including Korean, Japanese and Mandarin.
One of the company’s greatest success stories has been in Mongolia, a vast landlocked country with a vibrant nomadic population. What3words has become an official addressing system there, Jones said, which means the company’s three-word phrases are now used by the Mongolian postal services, its banks, taxis, Airbnb owners and even Pizza Hut.
Many people around the world still live without an address, which has allowed the startup to find compelling opportunities to reach new users and demonstrate its service. For example, the company recently worked with a refugee settlement of over 100,000 people in Uganda to ensure everyone could get deliveries and map out as many as 50,000 buildings.
“Every single person in that refugee camp has now got an address,” Jones said. He added that those addresses are recognized by the local health agency, which makes it easier for medical workers to find people. The app can also operate offline, making it easier for first responders to deploy in remote locations without internet data.
It’s also been useful in situations where a person might not necessarily know exactly where they are. Police in northern England told CNN Business that they once used the app to rescue a kidnapping victim. “We asked her to download the app and give us her three-word location,” said Paul Redshaw, a supervisor at Humberside Police. “This meant that we could identify which building she was in and officers were sent to her aid immediately.”
What3words is free to use for the general public, as well as for nonprofits. The company plans to make money by licensing its code to businesses that want to integrate it with their systems. “If you’re a big delivery company or you’re a car company or a mobility company, we can make you much more efficient,” said Jones. Two of what3words’ investors are logistics firms. Germany’s DB Schenker and the UAE’s Aramex are using the startup’s technology in their systems to help delivery workers know exactly where they’re going, a way to save time.
Other partners are using it to showcase new features on their platforms. German automaker Daimler (DDAIF), another what3words backer, has adopted it in some of its cars’ navigation systems, letting passengers input three-word addresses by voice. Another company, the South Korean messaging app Kakao, has used what3words as a way to invite users to discover new fishing spots that were previously off the grid.
And Cabify, Uber’s main ride-hailing rival in Latin America, teamed up with the mapping startup earlier this year to let its users more easily share specific destinations, such as a street corner or bus stop. “Running groups are using us to mark out running trails. People are using us to find their friends at festivals,” Jones said. “We’re basically a pin drop that you can say, write down, input into a device and then remember.”
In five years, the company wants to be accepted as the global standard. “So you see the three slashes on a building, on a business card, in a search engine, and you go, ‘That’s an address,'” said Jones.