'Mind-blowing' - what3words founder Chris Sheldrick reveals how and why app was created

Virgin Radio

13 Nov 2023, 11:34

what3words founder Chris Sheldrick talks to Chris Evans at Virgin Radio.

Co-founder and CEO of what3words, Chris Sheldrick, visited Virgin Radio to talk about the app, which divides the planet into 3x3 metre squares and assigns each of them a unique three-word address.

The app was created in 2013, and is used by millions of people in 193 countries daily, in over 50 languages. Joining the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with cinch, the what3words founder said that he came up with the idea with co-founder and pal Mohan Ganesalingam while working in the music industry. He explained: “I said to him, ‘It's just really annoying me that I've just done this gig and all the musicians couldn't find the right entrance to where we're trying to get to’. 

“I tried, on my last gig, giving GPS coordinates, the latitude and longitude, on the call sheet to all the musicians, and everyone was like, ‘What on earth is this? Why are you giving us geo coordinates? I play the bass guitar. What do I do with this?’, And I said, ‘If only there was some way of just getting this super easy, super simple’. And within 30 seconds flat, Mohan just said, ‘Well, why don't we make a sequence of a few words for every few metres on Earth? Wouldn't that be super simple?’ And I was just like, ‘That's mind-blowing, but surely you'd need quite a few words in the sequence?’ And he said, ‘No, I think you could get around the whole world in three words.’” 

He continued: “So, we did the back-of-the-envelope maths within a couple of minutes, and before we knew it, we'd worked out there were 57 trillion metre squares in the world, and there are about 57 trillion combinations of three words. I just looked at it and went, ‘Right, I'm leaving the music business and I'm gonna run with this’.

Explaining another experience that led to the creation of what3words, he told the story of how a truck driver had incorrectly typed in some coordinates and ended up an hour north of Rome when he should have been an hour south. “I think even to people who understand them, it's actually not the easiest thing, in everyday life, to accurately type in 16 digits without making a mistake,” he said.

Despite assuming that “everyone would think it was a really good idea,” Chris explained that people took some persuading to get on board with it. He said: “A lot of people, which I wasn't expecting, just went, ‘This seems pretty random. Are you honestly suggesting that you're going to get people trying to get their deliveries made to ‘asparagus.cucumber.rhubarb’? And you’re honestly expecting that people are going to use this in daily life?’ To me, I thought, ‘Absolutely! That seems like the most logical thing ever,’ and a lot of people think. ‘This is just the craziest thing ever’. So I did find out it was quite polarising.”

He added: “Now people call up the police or the ambulance service and give these three words, and so you can normalise what might sound crazy when you first hear it.”

Thousands of organisations and even the National postal service in Mongolia, and it turns out that the founder’s mum does as well. “My mum, she lives on a farm. She asked me to report some flytipping the other day,” he said. “Someone put a sofa on her field, which she's very angry about. So I went on to North Herts District Council flytipping page, which I was happy there was one, and on it, it said, ‘Can you input the what3words of where this flytipping has taken place?’ 

“My mum, who’s 87, who had managed to work the app out, was in the field, WhatsApped me, which was an accomplishment in itself. And just the circularity of it all just was a powerful moment.” 

Virgin Radio listeners sent in some of the times that what3words has come in handy for them: 

On what3words, its CEO said: “I love it still, to this day. Just the elegance of the idea that three words is just easier than 16 numbers or an alphanumeric code or whatever else it could have been, to express any three metre square on the surface of the earth.”

Download what3words for free. For more information visit what3words.com.

For more great interviews listen to  The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with cinch weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or catch up on-demand here.