what3words is a technology service that helps you order a pizza to a beach, or call the emergency services to the side of the road when you don't know exactly where you are. By dividing the world into x3 by x3 metres (and given each square a unique three word name) they've created a global address book. But what's the application for the service, and when you have a new service how do you give it to the world in a way that the world notices? Today's guest is Isabella, and she gives us the answers to those questions!
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Below is the full transcript of today's episode:
- Welcome to today's episode of In Conversation With. I'm lucky to be joined by Isabella from what3words. How are you?
- I'm good, thank you.
- Just back from Italy?
- Just back from Italy, yes.
- And how was- I suppose last weekend must've been lots of fun being in Italy.
- Yes, I was actually in London for the- for the match of the league. So, I couldn't celebrate with my fellow Italians. But it was, yeah, it was a good feeling. Yeah.
- Well then thank you for making some time. Just very quickly, tell us what you do for what3words.
- Sure. So, I am the director in international markets business development, which means that my responsibility is really to make sure that what3words is used and known outside of the UK, where it's really pretty well-known and there's a high level of usage and awareness. So, we want to make sure that everybody at anywhere can use what3words.
- So, let's start with that, because I think people are beginning to become familiar with what3words. And, I've noticed that there's been a huge campaign recently on television, there's adverts now for what3words, specifically for what3words, as supposed to being kind of tied in with another brand.
But, there may still be people who are unfamiliar with the service. So, so let's start there. What is what3words?
- Sure, absolutely. So what3words in a nutshell, it's an addressing system and it tries to combine the precision of GPS coordinates with the simplicity of using words, words from the dictionary. So right now, when I'm speaking to you, I'm at Stars Photos Panic and that's the only place with that address.
So, the way we did it is that we divided the world, entire world into a grid of three by three metres. And, each one of these squares, and there are 57 trillion roughly, has been assigned a fixed and unique address, which is made of three words from the dictionary. So there are not two squares, three by three metres that have the same three word address.
So the system is, the idea is pretty simple, right? And a lot of people sometimes ask me, "Wow, how is that possible?" "Nobody else thought about it before." But yeah, sometimes simple ideas are, yeah, the best ones.
- And what I love about it, I was lucky enough to talk to Claire Jones. You see a few years ago, on the podcast Ted Talks and what struck me, I think then, and people often say to me, what was your favourite episode? We did nearly 400 episodes now. And what3words still jumps out because it's so simple. It's one of those ideas when we kind of sat there and go, I could have thought of that.
I mean, I wouldn't have ever been able to sit to actually execute it, but the idea itself is wonderfully simple. And, and so kind of so easy to see how it could be applied. And funnily enough, a few years ago I found it's- one of its wonderful uses. I was queuing for tickets for the last night of the prom's at the Royal Albert Hall, which is typically kind of nine hours in a queue. And people were very jealous when I managed to order Domino's to the queue.
- Yes, exactly. Yeah. You can get anything or go anywhere. Yeah. And find a three-word address. Absolutely.
- So look, you mentioned where you're sitting, I'm sitting at Often Campfires, Warthog. I had a few different choices. You can kind of, obviously there's a few different squares that would apply to the house, but that was my particular favourite. But beyond the novelty, what- why do we need what3words beyond kind of getting Domino's to a queue?
- What are the kind of the practical kind of reasons where you go, you know, this really begins to make sense and helps people out?
- Sure. And I think that people don't always, especially if you live in a city or in a country where addresses are pretty, pretty good, you don't often realise there are so many places that don't really have a precise or complete address. So just to give you a couple of examples that could relate, that anyone could relate to, next weekend I'm driving up to Yorkshire, never been there, I don't drive a lot outside of London.
So if my car breaks down in the middle of the motorway, I need to find an easy way to tell the breakdown service where exactly to pick me up. But if you are along the side of a motorway, it's not really easy, especially if you're not familiar with the area and don't know the mileage. So you need to find a landmark or some sort of way to describe where you are.
With what3words you would just be opening up the app, and look at the three word address of where you are and on the other side, they know exactly where to come and pick you up. But that's one example of- again, we're talking about England. So really good addressing system, generally speaking. But just some places where addresses are not just precise.
Or, if you and I were meeting in person rather than virtually, and we're meeting in Regions Park, for example, huge park. So how do we decide exactly where to meet? Usually it will be, we'll be calling each other to try to find each other, even if we said roughly south entrance or east entrance. So there are so many places where there might be a generic address, but there is not precise address, as you would think about it with a street number, street name, postcode, and so on.
And I'm not even going into the billions of people around the world that just don't have any address because there's many countries and regions without, or very, very poor addressing systems. So I gave you a couple of examples that could relate to anyone living anywhere.
- So are you kind of beginning to touch on in on a couple of key questions there, because I suppose how you spread adoption of a technology like this is, is crucial, right? It's- I suppose to a lot of people, the idea of downloading another app onto their phone and in that situation where they're kind of maybe- maybe they have broken down or they're lost and they're a bit stressed.
They maybe they won't think to open what3words or if they do open what3words, can they be sure that if that if they have broken down in the UK, will the emergency services know what they're on about if they start talking about what3words?
So is the adoption going to be achieved through consumers, through being in situations where they go, "Ah, here's the solution that can get me out of this situation and actually having it on their phone, or is it going to be through partnerships and people being encouraged to use it, not necessarily by you, but say by the emergency services or Lonely Planet, if it's a travel guide or something along those lines.
- Yeah. That's a really great question. And it needs to be both, right? It's an addressing system. So you need consumers, you need businesses, you need entire ecosystem to adopt what3words for it to be as useful as possible. Just to give an example, so if you download the app on your phone, you can find your what3words address. You can find what3words address for any place in the world, you can share it with me.
You can save it, but that's not really enough. Right? You also want to be able to go into your car and tell your car, take me to Apple Banana Spoon, rather than having to type or try to say by voice a very long address. You want to make sure that when you're tell-booking central booking confirmation, you'd get the confirmation with a watcher of the address so you don't have any trouble getting there.
You want to make sure that at checkout you can use watcher of the address so you get your packages exactly where you need them to- to come to you. So you really need both. And that's in terms of consumers, we do our education marketing campaigns. So we do our part in, in telling people how, what3words could be useful, but it is as useful as many businesses and services integrate what3words into their products, services, and operations.
And so, yeah, we work in parallel marketing and awareness for consumers, but also partnerships and business development with, with company and businesses.
- And given that you were trying to spread this around the world, and as we've mentioned that kind of, your job is to look beyond the UK. Are there certain territories where partnerships will have more of an impact say, than consumer driven behaviour?
I suppose what I'm, what I'm asking is, are there any examples really of countries where you kind of go, "Oh, this country it's quite easy to- to grow quickly because of the way that people use technology, or actually if we could get it into X, Y, or Z service, you know, I'm thinking of, you know, if you're looking at the developing world where there aren't, I suppose as reliable address systems, how you do that?
And then also how reliable, so those people can get on the service, you know, this requires a smartphone, right? So I suppose for some parts of the world where they don't have an address system, do they have the means, do they have the technology to be able to use it?
- Right. No, absolutely. So to answer the first part of your question, the process of getting what3words really started and adopted in any market is pretty much the same, no matter where you are, you need- if you really, which is our goal to- if you really want to make what3words an addressing system that is like used and becomes natural, as natural as any other address, you really need to have both.
So I don't think there are easy markets and difficult markets or markets where you just go in and immediately you get millions of people using what3words without any education or any effort or any partnerships on the business side. But the- surely there are markets where addressing is a big problem. If we think about the middle east and Saudi, it's a big market is growing so fast in terms of technology and e-commerce, and there's quite- people have purchasing power.
So it's a great market in terms of- like it's advanced in some ways, but addressing system, their addressing system's really, really poor. There are no postcodes. Sometimes there are no roads or road names, they're just neighbourhoods. And so they rely on people to really know where they're going, but it's also a country that is growing in terms of construction and buildings.
So it's absolutely a great market for what3words. So there are markets that are very suitable, although to be honest, some of our- at the moment, some of our greatest markets in terms of options, are the UK, Germany, U.S., Canada, which are all advanced markets with really developed addresses systems. But again, it's not- there are so many instances where addresses are not so precise. So I think that this is what I personally really like.
It's a product that can work for the developed world. So all the fancy techy-use cases, all the use cases that also enhance your life. So it's drone deliveries, it's normal deliveries, it's using what3words in navigation systems in your car. But on the other side, there is absolutely also the- the outer side of what3words enabling signing up for a SIM card or getting medical support where you need it. And so, yeah, it's really a product that can- or in general, the addressing problem, it's got many layers and what3words is quite suitable, no matter what.
- It's interesting because I suppose my rather inarticulate question was that there is this trade off, isn't there? Between the developed markets, which you would imagine it might actually be harder to get a new technology like this to be adopted because you kind of go, well, we've got postcodes, we've got addresses and yeah, alright.
The specific examples of if you break down in the middle of nowhere makes perfect sense, but they've got the technology in hands to be able, you know, we're used to kind of downloading a new app and adopting the service. And we've kind of, over the last 10 years in this country, we've got used to the idea of challenger banks and- and other kinds of services, adopting new services.
So something like this- yeah, fine. But in other countries where there aren't those addressed systems, you kind of go, yeah, I can see that there's a massive opportunity, but they might not have the technology available to be able to look at a phone screen and go, these are my what3words.
- Yes. And we have a few great examples of what3words is being used in those type of situations. So just to give you an example, a few years ago, we worked with an organisation called Gateway Health in South Africa. They provide healthcare to women, especially women that are about to- that are pregnant and they're about to give birth.
And one of their problems was that when these women called with emergency problems, they- that they didn't have an address. So very often the medical support will come, will get there too late. And so, as part of like our work this association, the- like some of the doctors and the staff went around all these houses with a smartphone, providing these people, these women with a 3-word address of their house.
So they were just literally writing what3words on a piece of paper, or giving them a sticker or something they could put into a Bible or a book. So- and whenever they needed to call the emergency they would just have to pick this piece of paper and give the address to where they were.
So, yes, at some point or somewhere in the chain they will need- there will need to be someone with a smartphone giving you your what3word address or sending you a text message where you can just click and open a very simple website with- we also created, initially for the South Africa market, then there was something that we were using- or widely, very simple stripped down version of our mobile website, that loads with very little connectivity.
And you can see just the three words of where you are. So there are ways that we can work around- work around this, like lack of technology, but it's, yeah, it is something that probably some point we'll start exploring it even more.
- Now, in some respects, I kind of look at this and think it's almost like this wonderful gift, like a global address system that kind of works. And you know, some of those examples there that you were giving of women then being able to kind of get medical, medical help to their homes. I know that the service has been used by the UN Disaster Recovery Agency,
I think. So the idea that if you had a refugee camp, which obviously doesn't have an address system to get aid packages, these are all wonderful examples of technology being used for good. Does feel like it's a bit of a gift for the world, right? "Hey guys, here's an address system all these companies can use and all these services can use," where's the business behind this? Is it the- okay, you give it to the emergency services because it's doing good, but when Domino's use it, that they have to be able to, you know, they pay you a certain fee to be able to use the service. Where's the business behind this?
- Yes. So what we were- so the app and website and everything is free for consumers. We also don't charge images services, don't charge NGO's, but what businesses pay what we was forced to licence our API. So in other words, we charge businesses like, Domino's, the car companies, et cetera, et cetera, that use what3words to improve their operations, to get a commercial benefit at the end of the day.
They save costs or they increase their efficiencies. It really depends on the type of business, but what they pay for, it's to get our codes and convert a what3words address into coordinates they can use for routing, for navigation, for optimising that their routes, really.
So, yeah, it's not a really novel or business model. It's been there for many, many years. It's- yeah, the geo coding, the same thing that happens when you type a normal address, like 35 Kings Road, London into any digital mapping system.
- Now there was an article in the paper this morning talking about the fact that- I won't say which, but one of the other kind of widely available mapping services might- might lead people to slightly treacherous paths when navigating Ben Nevis. And you kind of think about the user cases in the UK for what3words, and as you said, breaking down on the motorway, maybe it might be a hike around out in the hills saying the light districts or the- or the Pennines who gets in trouble.
And despite it being good weather at this time of year, you know, people can find themselves in very dangerous situations. Does the app need signal? What are the challenges when you're looking at this in terms of, you know- cause typically if you're up in the Cairngorms, in Scotland, you might open your phone and find that you've got no signal whatsoever and therefore this wonderful piece of technology falls flat, right? Or does it?
- Yes. And I think that's really one of the reasons why what3words has been so widely adopted by emergency services and by communities of hikers, fishing, hunting, like anywhere where you probably will go somewhere beautiful, but with no connection for your phone. Cause the- once you have the app downloaded and you can download it at any point when you have wifi and when you have connectivity, but once the app is on your phone, it will work offline.
Because as long as the location is enabled on your phone, you'll be able to open it up and see the three words of your current location. You'll be able to search for three words and you'll also be able to navigate, to some extent, using our compass feature. So you won't be able to use to see probably, the map tiles in the background, because that requires connectivity. You won't be able to use any navigation feature from any navigation app that you have unless it works offline.
But you'll be able to see your three words and in the same way- companies, businesses, apps- and we are integrated with a number of hiking apps or outdoors apps. If they work offline, they can leverage the what3words SDK to integrate our code into their app. So what3words would work offline even inside third-party apps. So absolutely. Yeah.
- Very randomly, I was recording a podcast talking about this particular issue just before we jumped to this recording. So I've got a prop ready, but here is an OS map. Are advice to hikers this summer is take your OS map, take your compass because you might not be able to necessarily see the terrain around you on what3words.
But if you get into trouble, you can still get your what3words, still get that through the emergency services. So hopefully you know where you are according to the map and they can come find you because they'll be able to give- there'll be able to get an exact pinpoint on you.
- Right. And and really what3words is one more tool when you're going on little adventures, hiking or kayaking, boating. So those are really big use cases in the UK as well. It's one more, one more tool. And you're going to have your compass. You're going to have your maps, but if you are not really professional, you might not be so familiar with using that type of equipment.
So again, it's quite a safe, safe thing to do to download what3words on your phone and yeah. Be ready. Hopefully you're not going to be using what3words for emergency. You might be- I hope you're going to be using that more for fun things, for travelling, for deliveries, but it's definitely useful to have it there.
- I go, I can tell you as someone who's an amateur trail runner, those extra are quite comforting, sometimes when you head off cross country going- "I think this is the right way. No, okay." So what's the future for what3words, services like yours tend to get bought up by bigger organisations, right?
And, amalgamated into pass of their service offering. Do you think that's likely what's going to happen or do you see it being, you know, view of you still as an independent company, got a mission and a long way to go?
- So at the moment, we're really laser focused on making what3words a global standard. So that's our goal. We know that we have a great product that is- many industries and many people find really useful. And we want to make sure that it becomes known and popular outside of the UK or outside of some other markets where we're getting a lot of traction like the US, Germany, India, Canada, and so on.
So that's really where we're putting all of our energy and all our efforts. And I lived in Silicon valley for a few years. So I've seen so many businesses that were built to be sold super fast. And what3words is not that kind of business because our co-founder and CEO, Chris, built what3words and came up with this idea that you and I could have had, because it was solving his own problem.
He ran a- he used to run a music business, and he was struggling every day with the issue of getting people, packages, deliveries, singers, messages, to the right spots on a big festival site or the right entrance of a big venue. So the spirit of what3words has been, we're going to build something that solves a real problem for real people and real businesses. And what happens as a consequence of striving to get to that goal and to fulfil our mission. We'll see.
- The last thing that I'd love to ask is just around your advice to businesses who are looking to achieve mass adoption in multiple territories, like, you know, that growth, that scale piece is so hard. You know, I almost feel like you're on that journey of, you know, where, what3words becomes this phrase for an address that people begin to adopt in the same way that people have adopted Uber for taxis and Airbnb for holiday rentals.
You know, I think people talk about an Airbnb when it's not an Airbnb. So what's your advice in trying to go on that journey? Should another business come along and go, "this is what we're trying to achieve"?
- Right. Well, I wish I had a recipe for success because I would be the first one applying it. It's really, it's really tough. It's really challenging. And yeah, there is no way around it. It's a big challenge, but I would say maybe the very first thing is making sure that your product or service- if you want to expand globally or across different markets- it's suitable for those markets. In our case, for example, what3words was built with the idea of being global.
So this grid of three by three metres covers the entire world. There is not little desert or island that is a piece of the ocean that is not covered. So it's global already in nature, but it's also made up of words, and words of really language specific. And we want them to be language specific because it's meant to be user-friendly. So we started with English, but now we are available in all nearly 50 languages and counting.
And that's, you know, really important when we enter a new market that we know, okay, is that- do we have everything we know, we need to succeed in these markets. So that's the first piece, but then the, probably the most difficult bit is to find the right balance between scaling fast and find a way to be in many markets in a way that is actually sustainable and scalable, and localization, and going on either extreme is not going to help you, because if you try to copy paste what worked in the US, or in the UK to all the other markets like Blankly, you get lucky and you'll be succeeding in some markets, but you'll be failing miserably in others without knowing why.
But on the other hand, if you'd spent tonnes of time researching and strategizing how to approach each market, that's really too expensive and time consuming. So finding that balance between applying what you learn in some markets to others, but also understanding really quickly what you need to customise and localise for that market. And it's really the key and it's so difficult. So it's really a matter of like trying, failing fast, tweaking your approach and trying again, and rinse and repeat, really.
- Well. Look, it's been fascinating to talk to you. I think you've got a wonderful weekend weather-wise for your first trip to Yorkshire, where whereabouts in Yorkshire are you headed?
- Actually, that's going to be next weekend because-
- Oh that's next weekend
- Right. So this weekend will be a lot more local. We'll be in London enjoying the sunshine. Maybe some barbecues. Yeah.
- Well enjoy your first trip to Yorkshire. It's a wonderful place to use something like what3words, that's for sure. And thank you very much for your time today.
- Thank you, Dave. Pleasure.