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London startup what3words has just gone global with huge Aramex logistics deal

When I first heard about a startup that was chopping up the world into 3m x 3m squares I thought, “Well that’s a solution looking for a problem if ever there was one.”

But after just a few moments more listening to the idea, you realise this could be a massive, massive deal.

Today, we all idly follow our GPS to a postcode, often coming to ‘our destination’ only to find we’re standing by a bush, on a lane, in the middle of nowhere.

If you live in areas of the world with even more haphazard addressing systems – like parts of the Middle East, where you can be asked to draw a picture of where you live in relation to other landmarks – you’ll probably forgive the courier who gives up on the delivery.

what3words has already completely re-imagined the global addressing system by chopping the world up into 57 trillion equal parts and assigning each with a three-word name.

To avoid mix-ups, similar sets of words are distributed as far away from each other as possible – unlike typical sequential systems that put the same numbers or letters near each other.

Homophones, like ‘there’ and ‘their’, are out, and more complicated words are placed in places where speakers of the relevant language are less likely to be. (See: Antarctica.)

Just to give you an idea of what’s going on, here’s NS Tech’s office: liability, ready, moral.

Carter Lane

Chris Sheldrick, cofounder and CEO, told NS Tech that the B2B2C technology is a “short-term memory communications tool”, a bit like using domain names instead of strings of numbers for addressing a website.

what3words has now raised an $8.5m Series B round of funding led by one of the the Middle East’s largest logistics companies, Aramex, to take the idea across the world.

“By integrating 3 word addresses into our e-commerce operations across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, we are better able to reach more consumers worldwide, even those in difficult to access locations,” says Hussein Hachem, CEO of Aramex.

“The partnership is also perfectly aligned with our commitment to becoming a technology-based enterprise, looking for new and innovative solutions to enhance our operations.”

In the next few weeks, an Arabic-language version of what3words will be released, taking into account the same language challenges already planned for in the English one.

Addressing Mongolia

The startup has already signed up Mongolia’s state-owned postal delivery service Mongol Post to licence its software for a roll out in August.

It’s a country that covers an area almost as large as the EU, but 30 per cent of its 3m citizens are nomadic, which must be a nightmare for the delivery guy.

what3words will be integrated into online checkout processes so shoppers can discover their three-word location and the postal service can then pinpoint where to make the delivery. And, crucially here, it can even be used while offline.

Not limited to helping those in poorly addressed regions, in the UK, what3words says it’s helped Direct Today Couriers reduce failed deliveries by 83 per cent. “As they cover the south of England,” Sheldrick explained, “it’s a classic scenario of country roads, bad postcodes, house names and no house numbers.”

what3words is also being integrated as a voice tool into in-car systems and smartwatches, the latter being particularly helpful given you can’t input letters into the device. Some of the new cash funding will be used to ramp up efforts here.

Sheldrick reckons this is a huge opportunity to transform the trillion-dollar logistics industry worldwide. He points to a figure from UPS, where it said it could save $50m every year if its drivers drove just one mile less each.

No doubt what3words has its eyes on this huge prize. And, with the likes of Intel Capital also among its existing investors, this could become the global standard for addresses that firms have been waiting for.

The platform isn’t without its critics, though, not least those who point out this represents a privatisation of a service that should really be free.