It’s rare that an app makes headway with emergency services before the general public. In the UK, what3words has become a critical tool, saving the lives of many who have been stranded or needing assistance.
Over 75 emergency services in the UK use the system, as a better way to locate people. Police in North Yorkshire have urged residents to download the app, and rescue services also swear by it.
What3words segments the world into 57 trillion 3 by 3 meter squares, each with a unique address composed of three words.
Chris Sheldrick, the co-founder and CEO of what3words, conceived of the idea after having trouble getting mail delivered to his home in rural Hertfordshire. Also, as a gig organiser, he struggled to get bands to meet at specific entrances.
The premise was simple: create a simpler geo-locator without sacrificing accuracy. Sheldrick immediately considered a switch from numbers to words and asked mathematician (and co-founder) Mohan Ganesalingam to crunch how many would be needed to cover the planet.
The answer was 40,000, although newer languages only have 25,000 words as they don’t cover the sea.
Now, instead of searching for latitude & longitude, a person stranded need only share the three word address and emergency services have a pinpoint location. It also works as a far more accurate postcode, so much so that Mongolia has adopted it for postal services.
Considering approximately four billion people don’t have a home address and 75 percent of countries don’t have a well maintained address system, the potential for what3words is enormous. Instead of setting up a costly postcode system, countries could simply license the technology and inform citizens to download the app.
However, as what3words becomes more of an essential tool, will the startup be able to maintain it as a for-profit venture? There have been several complaints about the app’s proprietary tech and its combative attempts to shut down open-source competitors.
While what3words has said it offers discounts to emergency services and developing nations, it treads on rather thin ground. That being said, Sheldrick sees it as part of a change in how governments outsource infrastructure to private companies, a trend happening globally.
Outside of working with governmental departments, what3words has also partnered with travel guides Black Tomato, Trip Wolf and Lonely Planet. Airbnb guests can be told which entrance to enter and leave with what3words and Cabify drivers can assign a precise location where the rider should meet.
BMW and Mercedes have both integrated what3words into the navigation systems.
Even with this strong commercial growth, what3words has not released total or monthly active user figures, which hints at a stronger corporate than consumer backing.
The company may struggle to keep the emergency services partnered with the widespread adoption of Advanced Mobile Location (AML). All smartphones in the UK, US and 21 other countries have AML embedded, removing the need for a separate app download.
Emergency services is just one sector for what3words however, and one that will be an increasingly negligible source of revenue as more countries adopt what3words for their postal and address services.
|Launch date||2 July 2013|
|People||Chris Sheldrick (co-founder, CEO), Jack Waley-Cohen (director), Giles Rhys Jones (chief marketing officer)|
Note: what3words axed its business model in 2015, which sold single word locations to businesses for a subscription fee. This is why revenue decreased in 2016.
Source: Companies House
Source: Companies House
Source: Dealroom, The Telegraph
what3words Total Funding
Note: What3words has not released any data on its users. We know it has been downloaded over 10 million times on iOS and Android.
Note: Customers may use what3words for more than one product. Several customers, including emergency services, also receive discounted rates, although what3words does not disclose its standard rate.
what3words Web Visits
Source: Berlin Startup Map
what3words Supported Languages
what3words other key stats
- 40,000 unique words are used to create the key locations
- There are 57 trillion unique variations on these 40,000 words
- Mongolia uses what3words for its postal service (BBC)
- 25% of the Mongolian population have downloaded he app (Courier Media)
- 4 billion people don’t have a home address, (CBC) what3words could provide them with access to mail, electricity and TV
- what3words made £390,000 in revenue in 2019 (Companies House), from 1000 partnerships with organisations
- It has never made a profit, losing £14.4 million in 2019
- what3words is available in 45 languages (what3words), although the languages don’t translate perfectly (Shkspr)
- Mercedes Benz also includes it in its vehicle location system (Wired)
- Dominos use it as the primary form of location finder in Middle East (what3words)
- Ex-Formula 1 driver Nico Rosberg has invested in what3words (UK Tech)
- 75 emergency services in England and Wales use the system (BBC)
- Currently the most popular navigation app on the UK Google Play Store (Similar Web)