What3words’ co-founder Chris Sheldrick on how winning UKTN’s Elevator Pitch helped the firm gain validation


UKTN will be hosting its Elevator Pitch Awards in London this evening, so we thought we would catch up with What3Words, a Elevator Pitch Series 5 winner for 2015.

CEO and co-founder Chris Sheldrick tells us what the team has been up to since taking part in our flagship competition to find the UK’s top tech talent.

Tech vertical: Location / Navigation

‪Funding: £15M to date

Staff count: 45

‪Location: London

‪Founded: March 2013

Q: It’s been a while since the what3words team participated in our Elevator Pitch competition, what have you been up to since then?

The Elevator Pitch was back at the end of 2015, and an incredible amount has happened since then, so I’ll give you the highlights.

We raised a $8.5m Series B round of funding led by one of the Middle East’s largest logistics companies, Aramex, with follow-on investment from Intel Capital, who led our Series A. More recently, we also closed an investment round with Deutsche Bahn.

We’ve won many, many awards including BITC responsible business awards, WIRED ‘2016 Most Exciting Moonshot’, 2017 Index Design to Improve Life Award, Black Pencil at D&AD Professional Awards. Chris also recently had the privilege to speak at TED Global in Tanzania.

Our system has been adopted by eight national postal services – Mongolia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Sint-Maarten, Tonga, Solomon Islands and Kiribati. These national postal services are now rolling out their own marketing campaigns to educate their customers and drive usage of 3 word addresses. We’ve also launched a second what3words office in Mongolia and are in the process of setting up a third in South Africa.

We’ve upped our number of partners to over 500 in more than 170 countries. These span industries including automotive, mobility, logistics, e-commerce, national post, travel, navigation, emergency services, humanitarian, asset management and UAVs.

We’ve done our first big automotive integration, announced at the Frankfurt Motor Show 2017. Mercedes-Benz will launch the world’s first car with what3words voice navigation next year.

What3words has also been used by NGOs and humanitarian partners to help pregnant women in the townships of South Africa to call for an ambulance, and to provide clean water in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. Our system is currently being used to coordinate rescue teams and find trapped people after the earthquake in Mexico. We’ve also just been out in Bosnia and Herzegovina training NATO teams on the use of our system, so anticipate it being used to help more people and save more lives in the future.

Q: How did the Elevator Pitch competition help you get to where you are today?

The Elevator Pitch was an important stepping stone for us as it gave us validation and recognition, which helped us to open doors with potential partners and investors. At that time we were much smaller, and few people had heard of us, so it was a very useful platform for us to share who we were and how much potential our system had.

Q: Tell me about why you decided to set up what3words in the first place?

I graduated with a music degree from King’s College London and London’s Royal Academy of Music. An injury sustained whilst sleepwalking put an end to my dreams of a performing career, so I stayed in the music industry by starting my own company that organises live music events around the world. It was whilst trying to make sure that musicians, equipment and festival-goers all ended up at the correct locations that I first realised the challenges of poor addressing, and I decided there had to be a better solution.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced since setting up the company and how have you overcome them?

Our biggest challenge is that what we’re trying to effect is a huge, global behavioural change. People have been using street addresses their entire lives, without questioning them. They get lost, packages go astray and millions of people worldwide have no address at all but, until they’re challenged to really think about it, some people don’t inherently feel there’s a problem.

We’ve had to find ways to clearly and quickly demonstrate the problem, finding examples (and there are so many) of when poor street addressing frustrates individuals and costs companies millions. It’s like flicking a switch, once we’ve engaged them, and shown them how the problem affects them specifically, they see the potential of our solution.

Q: You’ve raised £15m to date, how did you find the fundraising process and what advice would you give to any fellow tech entrepreneurs looking to raise money?

It’s important to find the right investors, to bring as much credibility, contacts, experience, and knowledge to your business as well as funding. A solid investor that already has contacts and influence in the specific industry you’re trying to break into is invaluable.

Q: What can we expect to hear from what3words in the next year or so?

We have native speaking languages teams working on many new languages, to add to the 14 we currently offer, so watch out for those early next year. We’re also working on new products including voice-enabled solutions – what3words is the only addressing system designed for speech recognition. We’re building dedicated scanning and sorting solutions for the postal industry, and a wider range of e-commerce plugins to allow businesses to easily add 3 word address capture to their online checkout.

Then, of course, there’s the very exciting launch of the first what3words-enabled car from Mercedes-Benz, and we anticipate further expansion into the consumer market – at present we have only been communicating what3words directly to consumers in Mongolia and we’d hope to expand our number of offices, getting local teams on the ground where we need them most.