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How business are reaping the rewards of technology for all kinds of mapping

In 2013, Chris Sheldrick was working as a concert organiser. It was a thankless job. It mostly involved getting various concert equipment to a venue on time. On paper, this should not have been anything more than just another thankless grunt job. But there was something that made it worse. The concerts were almost always at some obscure venue, and trying to get to them based on just the address provided was the equivalent of solving a rather hard chess problem. Like white to win in two moves with just a king and two blocked pawns. Sheldrick quickly got frustrated about how horrible addresses were in the USA.

Before I tell you what Sheldrick did about his frustration, let me digress a bit, and tell you that addresses in India were even worse. For some 15 years of my childhood, for as long as I lived at 15/32, 2nd Main, Marenahalli, there was another 15/32 in Marenahalli, on another road that was also 2nd Main, and pretty much right behind our house as the crow flies, but some 500 metres if the crow decided to walk on roads. For some 15 years, the two households had to exchange snail mail every now and then, as whenever the regular postman who knew the nuance was off duty, mix-ups were bound to happen. To cut a long story short, Sheldrick’s problem was not just US-specific, but something that would find resonance the world over.

Sheldrick discussed his problem with Mohan Ganesalingam, an American resident, but his name tells you where he came from. And they came up with an idea that would elegantly solve the problem of addresses. They joined hands with two more people, Jack Waley-Cohen, and Michael Dent, and very soon what3words was born. The premise of what3words was that any geographic location on Earth could be expressed uniquely by a random combination of three words. Once that was done, all one had to do was remember three words instead of a confusing address. And this triplet of words would be linked to a lat-lon, making it easy to use any sort of a map app to guide yourself accurately to the location.

What3words may have been the first to come up with this excellent solution, but there soon were many others improving upon the idea. One such was a friend of mine, J Krishnamurthy, who, bored with being a Google employee, came up with Pyntag. It was just like the what3words idea, but instead allowed users to come up with their own unique ‘addresses’. So instead of some machine-generated TomDickHarry, you could have claimed ThejaswiUdupaHome for your residential address if you wanted to. It took a good idea and made it better. Some half a dozen others also did.

This was one of those ideas that had a lot of utility, and could even easily scale. But just because there was never really any clear way of making money off this brilliant idea, it refused to take off. This is probably because the whole idea rested on Google Maps, and on top of it, there was no clear route for ever earning revenue. And so, the investors stayed away — from one of the best ideas of our generation.

And now, with the full support and benevolence of Google Maps, we have — the same idea as what3words, the same idea as pyntag. But it is by Google.

Despite all that Google has done to underplay their involvement with, this whole incident teaches startups, especially those that definitely solve a problem without making money, a most definite lesson.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 3:35:27 PM |

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