Chris Sheldrick, 41, is co-founder and CEO of UK-based what3words. Billed as a ‘life saving’ app, it has been downloaded over 30 million times and is also used by thousands of businesses, including the automotive and travel industries as well as emergency services across the globe.
The company has raised over £100 million in capital from investors such as Intel, Mercedes-Benz, Deutsche Bahn and Sony Innovation Fund.
Hugh Phillimore was the ‘go to’ for setting up music festivals and events in amazing places. He wasn’t a musician but he had bravado and the execution in delivering events that had to be just right. I learnt to merge the two and capture people’s belief that you can deliver.
Entering the music business in my early twenties, I thought the whole thing was about music. What struck me about the tour management side was that when everyone was on stage alot of your job was done.
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Dionne Warwick came to town once to play at Claridge’s Hotel and my job as a young upstart was to get her dressing room ready. I looked down at the rider requests and soon got the room ready, like the exact number of hand towels, but she just wanted to hang out with the band backstage. I was crestfallen. I thought getting the dressing room ready was this crucial moment of the music business and then she didn’t even use it.
I remember Hugh telling me it was of the utmost importance that the room was still immaculate. He said I had done spectacularly in case she needed it. It might seem an odd story but what I got out of it was this notion of contingency planning. Doing the best job for whatever product or service you are offering means you have to plan for everything. Plenty of it is about redundant planning and it is one of the ways I run my business today.
“Another moment involved a lack of stage towels at a Tower of London event. It dawned on me that I wouldn’t get towels late on a Saturday night and so I raced to a local hotel and negotiated a price. Hugh gave me a look that said “I know I can faith in anything you do”. Funnily enough, when one of our investors came on board at what3words they did a due diligence call. I gave Hugh’s name as my first boss and the investor later told me that he knew I would be a great success, because I was able to source towels that day.
Another time, I had to tell Hugh that I only had half of Chic due to a bus mixup. This was before online navigation and Hugh was stressing that Nile Rogers was in the half I didn’t have. We were always going somewhere new, trying to find a small festival site exit and that problem just got to me over time. I guess it drove me to find a way so that people wouldn’t get lost.
I had been on a holiday in Brazil and had come back early when the business was born. With a few days free, I went to see a mathematics friend on a whim. I moaned about musicians and a lack of wanting to use GPS coordinates that I was trying to instil into them. The what3words idea was hatched out of this conversation; if I hadn’t gone for tea I would definitely still be running music gigs today.
I think the simplicity of it is one of its big assets. I wasn’t a mapper, but I was ready to ask whatever the rules of geography are – many people say what3words breaks those rules because the system doesn’t have sequence – I was happy to come in and ask what the simplest way for a guitarist or my mum.
Ever since launch, people have asked if we wanted to add a fourth word. We’ve always said no. Three words is three metres – made up of 57 million squares – is beautifully simple and shouldn’t be complicated further.
While the UK is our biggest market, we want to be a global standard and what is encouraging is that we know we can make a country know about what3words and we are working in many of them.
What3words is unusual in many respects in that it’s something that has value when lots of people use it. Most products out there are more of a straightforward transaction. We have to build an elaborate network effect; between consumers and business networks and over the top we link it together. We aren’t selling a product or service, we’re making and selling a standard.
There are so many opportunities to try and tinker with the product, which we have to resist. A lot of what we do and how I lead the team is what will rapidly gain adoption in a certain country through a process – but we can’t just copy and paste the UK format.
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I recently bumped into Hugh, who always has a smile on his face. He loved the fact that a country like Mongolia was now using it and loved the fact that I had the bravado and the execution to pull it off. He seemed proud of where it had got to – the out of the ordinary and the fact that we have persuaded people to use a sequence of three words for so many things.
For instance, I was getting on a plane last month and came off to a stream of messages to say we were being used by the government for the queue and the Queen’s lying-in-state. It was great that what3words was used and we were very touched.
So much about the music business and what I was doing before was going ‘I need a contingency plan’, as what will go wrong in that world will go wrong. If you are good at this then you are a brilliant tour manager. I think that is almost my job now: you have eggs in multiple baskets, you plan well and then you reduce the ability for things to go wrong.
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