In 2016, the heads of the national postal services in 10 African countries each received a letter from a small British company called What3words. Some of these letters’ envelopes were illustrated with a picture of the person or place they were destined for. Others were covered with long-winded written descriptions of how to get to their end locations, or hand-drawn maps. All the envelopes displayed three seemingly random words written on the bottom.
The startup’s marketing stunt paid off. To the founders’ surprise, they received eight responses; the letters had captured the attention of What3words’ target clients.
Since its launch in 2013, What3words has secured deals with nine postal services around the world, plus a host of delivery firms, tourist services, banks and transport companies off the back of that.
The proposition is simple: its addressing system divides the world into 57 trillion 3m by 3m squares, and gives each square a unique, three-word address. For example, the three-word address for the entrance to the British Embassy in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar is ‘trades.rules.existence’. More precise than a street address; more memorable than a set of coordinates.
The opportunities it brings are huge: What3words is enabling less developed countries to overcome the economic challenges of poor infrastructure. In some cases, it’s allowing them to implement technological innovations faster than many countries with far greater resources.
What3words’ first international office opened in Ulaanbaatar in May 2017. From there, three members of staff are managing and expanding a network of clients in the country. Mmarket, the fastest-growing online marketplace in Mongolia, now lets customers put in a three-word delivery address. Banks recognise three-word addresses too, as does Pizza Hut. For the country’s shopping extravaganza around the lunar new year in February, What3words ran offers with the 10 biggest e-commerce platforms in the country.
Like many of What3words’ partnerships, it all began with the post. ‘We met [the Mongol Post] at the World Economic Forum in China,’ says Giles Rhys Jones, the company’s chief marketing officer. ‘They loved the idea.’
In Mongolia, as in many countries, people relied on landmark-based addressing, personal connections and collections from central post offices. The Post spotted an opportunity to improve delivery efficiency.
With excitement around the product appearing high among senior decision makers, What3words took a calculated risk: the team spent several months developing a Mongolian language setting for the app. It was no mean feat: a list of around 25,000 words was required, pulled together by a team of 29 Mongolian language consultants.
‘Every single word needs to be checked and graded, based on how common it is, memorability and length,’ says Rhys Jones. Rude or complex words are avoided.
What3words also had to create a new version of its app using oirat script; Mongolian is not a supported language on IOS or Android operating systems.
Once the deal licensing the What3words system to the Mongol Post was signed, the British company hired a team of three locals to train postal staff.
They also developed an e-learning programme, to help roll out the system at scale. TV adverts and social media campaigns were used to explain the new system to the population at large. Explaining the benefits to everyday people wasn’t hard; a year on, 25% of the population have downloaded the app.
‘The biggest barrier to e-commerce growth [in Mongolia] is the inability to receive goods,’ says Rhys Jones. In a country where purchasing power is growing at 2.5% annually (in the UK, it’s 0.1% – and slowing), being able to offer a solution to this problem is powerful.
In the long term, Rhys Jones would like What3words to become the ‘national standard, recognised by the government’. He hopes Mongolians will be able to use three-word addresses to register births, deaths and marriages.
In some ways, Mongolia is now miles ahead of countries like the UK and Germany. What3words recently ran a controlled test, comparing delivery speed to street addresses and three-word addresses, with some of the largest delivery companies in London and Dubai. Drivers were equipped with head cameras, then GPS-tracked and timed. In London, parcels arrived at three-word addresses 30% faster. In Dubai, they arrived 40% faster.
There’s economic advantage in being able to skip legacy systems (landlines, high street banks, post codes) and adopt new technology at scale within months, rather than decades.
Ireland’s postcode system launched in 2015 and took 16 years to develop. It cost £27m. What3words’ licence costs far less, and it’s quick to launch; the Mongol Post had it up and running in a month.
Along with its Mongolia office, What3words also opened sites in South Africa and Saudi Arabia in 2017.
Much of what works in one country – whether marketing strategy or teaching method – works in another. ‘We test things in one market and if it works, we see if we can replicate it,’ say Rhys Jones.
In Durban in South Africa, What3words’ partner Gateway Health, an emergency service provider, employed 11 young locals to spread the word. ‘They trained them up to teach the elderly,’ says Rhys Jones. The young men and women would cycle around areas with no official addressing system, and hand out slips of paper to elderly people with their personal three-word address written on them. ‘Grannies were told to keep the addresses in their bibles, because they never lose their bibles.’
On a research trip to Saudi Arabia, the team asked one woman where she lived. Her answer took several minutes, Rhys Jones says. ‘We made a bunch of films in similar situations; for example, asking where the nearest petrol station is.’ He thinks it’s a marketing concept with universal appeal.
While many organisations are sold on the time efficiencies and subsequent cost savings of the What3words system, the company took a new tack in Saudi Arabia. ‘In Saudi, we avoided this strategy, because people don’t want to be perceived to be watching the purse strings, as it is a much more generous culture,’ says Rhys Jones.
It could be a lucrative market for What3words; Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s fastest growing e-commerce markets. Currently, the company’s key partners are delivery firm Aramex and Abdul Latif Jameel, one of the region’s biggest manufacturers, distributors, retailers and financiers. And then there’s pizza: Dominos will come onboard in April.