“Believe in what you’re building”: Interview with Clare Jones, CCO of what3words

Street addresses weren’t designed to fit today’s modern society. Year on year, we are witnesses of remarkable technological advances and see new business/institutional models and apps whose functioning is greatly dependent on location preciseness. 

Founded in 2013, what3words is a geocoding system that has divided the world into 3m x 3m squares. Each square is then given a unique address of three words. what3words is used by businesses and governments to operate more efficiently, and by individuals to find and share locations. From delivery and taxi drivers and travellers to emergency service providers and NGOs and many more – this breakthrough model is now helping millions of people across the world to use simple 3-word addresses to find and share places faster and more easily.

We had the pleasure to catch up with Clare Jones, the Chief Commercial Officer of what3words. Clare joined the team at what3words in 2015 and wants to ensure the concept has a positive impact on the world. Clare was featured in the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 list for technology and is involved with London companies tackling social/environmental challenges. Outside of work, Clare is interested in impact investing, social enterprise and climate-related tech. In this interview, she takes us through the story of what3words and its enormous impact on various areas, and she provides us with useful tips and insights for founders and industry players. 

Hi Clare, thank you for joining us. To begin with, could you tell us what what3words’s core mission is and what are some of the most common problems it solves?

Thank you for having me! Of course – to put it simply, what3words is the easiest way to identify precise locations. Street addresses weren’t designed for 2022. They aren’t accurate enough to specify precise locations, such as building entrances, and don’t exist for parks and many rural areas. This makes it hard to find places and prevents people from describing exactly where help is needed in an emergency. That’s why what3words was created.

Every 3 metre square in the world has been given a unique combination of three random words: a what3words address. This allows users to find, share and navigate to very precise locations using three simple words. For example, a 3-word address can be used to route cars or even drones to, used as an address when ordering online, or simply given as a meeting point for a picnic in the park. 

Our core mission is to make life safer, more efficient and less frustrating. Thousands of businesses use what3words every day to solve problems, improve efficiencies and customer experience – from e-commerce and logistics companies to travel, ride-hailing and navigation apps. We’re also proud to be used by NGOs and emergency services around the world to help them reach people and deliver critical support. 

Our investors include Mercedes, Subaru, Intel Capital, Sony and Ingka Investments, and we are being used in 170 countries worldwide – even being adopted by some Governments as an official addressing system.

What’s the growth story behind turning a simple ‘3 words for each 3×3 meter square’ concept into a globally recognised startup that helps various industries to innovate?

So much of it has been about partnerships and collaboration. We’ve been lucky enough to find visionaries in so many organisations – from navigation engineers working on Mercedes Cars to paramedics using what3words in their daily operations, local grocery companies using what3words during the pandemic to do doorstep deliveries to major parcel companies like Hermes – who have been champions and advocates for us and what we’re building. 

Then of course we combine that with the work of our stellar marketing, growth, tech and product teams – who are constantly finding ways to get people using what3words in everyday life and helping our users spread the word, too. 

It’s basically been a huge team effort – from all those in the company and from our users and customers outside of it – to believe that we can create a revolutionary global addressing system. 

Emergency and humanitarian are among the impressive portfolio of industries you support. How does what3words help saving lives? And, what are some other innovative use cases on how people and industries use what3words?

NGOs and emergency services integrate our tech into their operations for cases where sharing location information is critical but for some reason it can’t be done automatically. For example, in some 999 calls, it’s possible to get the automatic location of the caller’s mobile phone, in which case the paramedics can be dispatched to that location, with no need to use any address or description. But in some cases, that automatic location sharing doesn’t work – so somebody may have to revert to describing their surroundings (which is very complicated to do in a rural area, for example).

In emergencies, every second matters, so many control rooms around the world are now set up so that if they need to receive a location verbally (over the phone), they can accept a what3words address. They’ll then enter this into their control room software and be able to dispatch help to that exact location. 

We’re also what3words being used for things accessible navigation; knowing exactly which entrance has a wheelchair ramp, or where the Blue Badge parking is at a stadium, or where the toilets are in a national park – these are all places where what3words can be used to give extra confidence and ensure people end up at exactly the right place. Seeing venues like the O2, Wembley and Alexandra Palace use what3words to help direct people to the right entrance is fantastic. 

Looking to the future we expect even more use of what3words in the world of autonomy – for example, drone delivery. We are incredibly proud that having worked closely with Royal Mail, DronePrep and Skyports, Royal Mail’s world-first drone delivery of a parcel to Scotland was done using what3words. 

You monetise your business by licensing your API. What are some of the biggest challenges of selling APIs and how do you overcome them?

Part of the challenge is about scale. As what3words has become more and more famous, we have a much higher volume of inbound interest from companies – ecommerce sites, delivery apps, taxi apps etc. – that want to use our API. 

Our incredible SME and Customer Operations teams have had to be incredibly creative in setting up our systems to handle massive volume increases without having to hire huge numbers of people. Of course, choosing the right tech tools is key here, but so is hiring the right people. As the company has grown, bringing in incredible new senior leaders with highly relevant experience – like Simrat Randhawa, who leads our SME team, or Ian Dunnett, our Business Director – has been central to our ability to scale our customer experience as the company becomes more of a household name. 

Similarly, our Localisation and Languages teams (led by an incredible linguist and leader Jamie Brown) not only have to work with thousands of linguists around the world to get our 50 languages live in our app and API, they then have to work with our partnerships, growth and marketing teams to create localised content so our many global users understand how to access and use what3words – wherever possible, in their native language. Setting up the localisation function, now led by Maiju Nurminen, was a key part of the success we’re seeing here.

Another challenge is also getting people in quickly as you scale; selling the API to big customers all over the world means hiring people internationally to do this. Our HR, recruitment and finance teams have an outstanding, agile operation around hiring so we are able to bring people in as the momentum grows.

So much of overcoming challenges in selling our API globally is about hiring incredible people across all functions in the company and ensuring they have the trust and confidence to problem solve quickly. One of our company values is Ready Fire Aim – we do the best we can in the time we have, moving quickly so that we can keep up with the pace needed in this growth environment. 

What pieces of advice would you give to budding founders, leadership-, marketing- and investment-wise?

Getting the right people into leadership positions is key. Whether that’s hiring externally for a particular experience set, or by nurturing people through the organisation to step into those roles themselves. I feel incredibly lucky at what3words to have such impressive colleagues; it makes the hard bits of the startup/scaleup journey feel much less painful, as they all provide so much insight, wisdom and thoughtful advice to our day-to-day, ensuring we can overcome any obstacle we come across.

I’d also say to believe in what you’re building – not everyone will get it, especially if it’s a new or different thing. But that’s okay – if you and your team believe it, and your users love it, and your customers keep coming back, you’ll build that trust and credibility over time. Some people who really didn’t believe in what we were doing at the beginning are now huge fans and customers; some of this is just about taking your time and perseverance.

How do you see your industry innovating in the next five years?

I think in the next five years we’ll see a huge uptick of voice tech – in cars, in home assistants and on smart devices such as watches. We’re already seeing voice as an input take off and I’d expect much more of that. Similarly, autonomy is becoming more of a reality – and with it comes the chance to build a more inclusive, accessible mobility ecosystem, which is something I’m incredibly excited about.