- Coordinating events in the music industry inspired Chris Sheldrick to launch navigation startup What3Words.
- What3Words assigns a three-word combination to every 3m x 3m spot on the planet, enabling more precise addressing. Companies like Mercedes-Benz and Airbnb are using the technology.
- The company has grown to 100 employees in 2019 and no longer occupies just one office — a change that sometimes feels “strange,” Sheldrick said. Recent hiring has focused more on bringing in specialists for key roles.
- This article is part of a series on growing a small business, “From 1 to 100.”
Chris Sheldrick dreamed of becoming a professional musician his entire life, but he was forced to reconsider those plans after a bizarre sleepwalking accident.
When staying at a friend’s house one night, Sheldrick — who plays the clarinet, bassoon, and piano — punched through a window, severing eight tendons, a nerve, and an artery in his left arm, putting an end to his dreams of a performing career.
Keen to stay in the world of music, Sheldrick became a manager and producer, working on events with artists like Lionel Richie and Billy Joel.
Some of the events that Sheldrick organized were in rural locations with no address. Coordinating guests, equipment, and musicians was often a nightmare as a result, and the idea for the What3Words navigation app was born.
What3Words gives every 3m x 3m square on the planet a unique three-word combination, such as lion.light.door or ball.dock.radiator. It’s designed to be far more precise than conventional addresses.
There’s a What3Words mobile app and a website, but the company makes most of its revenue by integrating its service into other apps.
Mercedes-Benz, Airbnb, and Lonely Planet all allow their customers to use the What3Words addresses. The company makes money by charging the likes of Mercedes-Benz to turn text into coordinates with the What3Words geocoding API.
The company has raised £50 million from investors and the number of staff climbed above 100 in 2019.
“I get more detached from what a lot of the people working in the company are doing on a day-to-day basis,” says the 38-year-old. “That sounds obvious on one hand, that yes, that’s going to happen when you grow from 10 to 100. But it also slightly just takes you by surprise.”
“When you found the company, you’re so used to being very, very close to everything that’s happening. And suddenly this machine starts to work on its own. And you of course introduce levels of management aside from just my direct reports. And it feels strange.”
What3Words now occupies two floors of Great Western Studios, a trendy creative space in North West London that overlooks the Grand Union Canal.
The fact that the team is not all in the same room anymore is also an adjustment, Sheldrick said.
“It’s surprising how much impact things like a door or a wall can make in terms of how much you see people or overhear what they’re talking about,” he said. “Even though it sounds kind of logical that you’ll have to move into a different room … you’re not really ready for what that actually means.”
The company culture has also changed in the types of hires it’s making. “We’re at the stage of the company where now we have specialists in all of the areas that we want to have specialists in,” Sheldrick said. “That’s also a huge change from 10 people to 100. At 10 you need generalists and at 100 you need specialists. At this stage, if we’re growing more, it’s generally to hire two people who have a very specific skill set.”
A key early hire for What3Words was Giles Rhys Jones, who spent several years working at advertising giant Ogilvy before joining What3Words as chief marketing officer.
“It was actually fairly serendipitous in that I wouldn’t say we were actively hiring for a CMO of the time, but he was introduced,” said Sheldrick.
As the cofounder, Sheldrick felt like he almost didn’t need any help with marketing in the early days because he knew the brand inside out.
“We hired him and then very quickly how we talked about our three words changed completely,” Sheldrick said. “For example, we really started talking up the value of What3Words for businesses. We were much more consumer-focused at the beginning.”
It’s important to recognize where your strengths and weaknesses lie as a founder, Sheldrick said. “Hire in areas that you’re not experienced.”