Chris Sheldrick of What3words: Lessons from Scaling a Startup



For a business founded on creating a new geolocation standard, the What3words offices in West London are hard to find.

A Google search does not take you to the office but to an elevated causeway overlooking a former factory that is now home to What3words and a handful of other businesses. “It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Says Chris Sheldrick, co-founder and CEO of What3words, of Confusion.

What3words was born out of Sheldrick’s frustrations in his former job as tour director for musicians. Poorly transcribed GPS coordinates have sometimes led to the arrival of road crews miles from the sites.

Together with a mathematician friend and co-founder, Mohan Ganesalingam, Sheldrick designed the What3words system, which divides the world into 57 tonnes of 3 x 3 meter squares, each identified by a combination of three words from a 40,000 lexicon.

Sheldrick set himself a huge leadership challenge when he set out to turn a good idea into a commercially feasible idea, with the intention of making it a standard global navigation tool.

Building the system was a challenge, but it would be of no value if the team did not persuade a critical mass of people to adopt What3words as their standard localization tool.

Sheldrick, 40, rose to the challenge by seeking to convince early potential users – people he calls “ambitious innovators” – with the aim of integrating the product as a “must have” among a critical mass of key users.

“We literally went around the world, from the traders in Portobello Road market to the governments sitting with us, all of whom shared all the issues that needed to be resolved., just with the app on our phones, ”says Sheldrick.

One of the first customers was the Mongolian Postal Service, which management Sheldrick met at a World Economic Forum event in China. As a result of this agreement, What3words opened an office in Ulaanbaatar, which now operates many of its global services.

“Basically, it was always the same ground,” says Sheldrick. “We have always focused on the human benefits of What3words and the fact that it can make the world less frustrating, more efficient and more secure.”

In the UK, What3words targeted people in rural areas. “It could be anyone from farmers and arborists to vets, anyone who went to a new place every day – even people like film crews – for whom what we were doing was so important. in their daily life, ”says Sheldrick.

“For these people it was so important in their daily life that they were ready to both use it and evangelize it. They would then say that it would be really handy if you integrated it into the X app, and then we were going to talk to the X app and say “could you natively integrate What3words into your platform?”

Key Leadership Lessons

* Keep the early business strategy clear and focused – in this case, target those who rely on precise location information.

* Eat breakfast with a different employee each day to hear what they are doing and gain insight and feedback.

* As a leader, nurture your customers’ raw enthusiasm – they become evangelists for the product.

* Empower other members of the leadership team so that they can help shape the business strategy.

These early users acted as an extension of the What3words staff, attracting other users, says Sheldrick. “This experience taught me how important it is to sustain and nurture raw enthusiasm. It also taught me that every user is important because you never know where they can lead.

In 2018, Mercedes-Benz adopted What3words for its in-car voice recognition system. Other auto brands followed, including Mitsubishi, Tata, Lotus, Ford and Triumph.

“I don’t think we get a single onboarding by walking into an organization with just one stat or one fact. It’s always a question of whether this will be the future of your industry, who do we work with and how many consumers do we have in the countries that interest you, ”said Sheldrick.

The company has opened offices in the United States and Germany, but many of its 130 employees are located in Britain. Sheldrick has breakfast with a different What3words employee each day, “to spend at least an hour just hearing what we’re doing with this part of the business, really like a giant brainstorming process.”

The meetings gave an “impetus” to his morning. “It’s about avoiding making the same mistakes again [repeatedly]It is also part of what Sheldrick describes as a process of “empowering others” to design company strategy.

The What3words payroll includes entrepreneurs, former senior executives of major global organizations, academics, creatives, and graduates. “It’s a good balance between incredibly smart people,” says Sheldrick.

Getting people out of the office and visiting potential users in other countries is essential, which means allowing people to manage their own schedules, says Sheldrick.

Over 85% of UK emergency service teams use What3words, including the Metropolitan Police and the London Fire Department.

The business model licenses the technology to organizations, making the service free for consumers. However, the company is still in need of significant funding and is nowhere near the scale Sheldrick knows it needs.

Its latest accounts, for the year ended December 31, 2019, reported a pre-tax loss of £ 14.5 million on revenue of £ 393,000. Sheldrick says revenues increased in 2020 and the business could be profitable “shortly” due to increased demand. “For us very fast scaling is important. “

The company has raised just under £ 30million in 15 funding rounds, most recently with a £ 12million investment from Ingka Investments, the investment arm of the Ingka Group, which owns Ikea , in March.

Three questions for Chris Sheldrick

Who is your leadership hero?

Naval Ravikant, co-founder, president and former CEO of AngelList, a funding platform for start-ups. I agree so much with what he writes. It’s about thinking long term about everything. Much of it is about the power of thought and the value of the mind.

What is the first lesson in leadership that you learned?

At 22, I was the boss of my first business. We were trying to put all these pop bands together and I thought it was great because you could decide what they played. I told everyone what they should do, but I felt it gave them some leeway. They did an amazing job but I didn’t get the visceral stuff. From a young age, it taught me an important lesson: let others lead the projects themselves if you want genuine buy-in.

What would you have done if you hadn’t started What3words?

I played the bassoon but had to quit due to an injury, which led me to create my first business. There’s this big company, Patreon, that makes the music business more like SaaS. [software as a service] model. I love music but I would have loved to start a business like this.

In the first three months of the pandemic in 2020, use of What3words halved as people stopped going out. At the same time, the number of revenue-generating client companies has exploded. The use of What3words by UK retailers increased by 1,000 percent between March and November 2020 as online shopping skyrocketed.

“We think long term. We were confident that the pandemic would subside at some point, so we stuck with our long-term strategy, focusing on developing new product features for the return to normalcy. “

What3words has its detractors. A BBC investigation into its use by mountain rescue teams in England and Wales revealed problems with similar poll addresses. An address given to the teams was in Vietnam.

Sheldrick says such problems are “rare” and safeguards have been built into the system to avoid confusion. “One of our key principles is to space as many addresses of three similar words as possible from each other, which is important to minimize the risk of human error,” he says.

“It is very important to understand how we built What3words, what it does and why it is done. What3words wouldn’t need to exist if we all passed latitudes and longitudes to each other.

Machines, he adds, are very good at sending each other latitudes and longitudes. “What3words is really made for situations where this is not possible and where we humans are involved. We’ve basically made it as elegant as possible. “



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