Chris Sheldrick spent a decade in the music business, promoting bands and producing big events all over the world. Frustrations with suppliers not finding site entrances, and bands not finding their way from the hotel to their gigs, led him on a journey to a simpler way of finding people.
Joining forces with a mathematician friend, he started what3words, a revolutionary company that's found a new way to map the world in 3m x 3m squares, with each plot assigned a unique string of three words. In 2016, the government of Mongolia became the first to adopt these three-word addresses as its official postal system, and what3words is now revolutionising the way people travel.
We asked Chris about the off-the-beaten-track places he's travelled over the course of his career, why he wears a head torch to bed, and how his company is working to make the world better.
Chris taking in the views of Terelj National Park in Mongolia © Chris Sheldrick
Where was your last trip?
My last trip was to Terelj National Park in Mongolia. I experienced a shamanic ceremony on the side of a mountain and lived in a ger (yurt) for a few days. The landscape was vast. There’s something sublimely peaceful about sitting by a river when you know you’re the only person for a very long way.
Where is your next trip?
The Dolomites in Italy. I’m going with my Aussie photographer friend, Wes, to try out his newest lenses. He’s the only person I know who is so zen that I’ll passively pick up some of his calm in a very short time.
Close to home: Chris still counts the English Lake District as one of his favourite places © Chris Sheldrick
What is your first travel-related memory?
My dad used to build his own motorsport cars to participate in a sport called trialling. It’s quite DIY-style, involving small cars driving up super steep hills. We would drive five hours or so every Sunday morning to take part. We often visited the Lake District; I grew up as a huge fan of the English countryside, and I often go back up there now.
Aisle or window seat?
Aisle. I’m a fidgety traveller and terrible at concentrating on anything during flights. I’ll be the one at the back of the plane doing squats and trying not to sit down.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
Before I sleep, I always position myself as close to a door as possible. I have a sleepwalking condition, which means I’m careful to make sure light is shining from the right place. That way, during a sleepwalk, I head towards the light and not to a window. I once punched through a window while sleepwalking and I’m keen not to repeat it. To that end, I’m undoubtedly one of the most prolific head torch wearers out there.
What inspired you to start mapping the world using three-word addresses?
I always struggled with addresses. I grew up in a small village where neither our address nor our postcode would lead you anywhere near our house. We spent many mornings waving in the middle of the road trying to intercept delivery drivers.
Meeting a member of a local reindeer tribe in Mongolia © Chris Sheldrick
During my ten years in the music business, this continued to frustrate me, as I spent a lot of time travelling to remote places, or trying to find the back entrance of some enormous complex, which is even less fun when trying to coordinate over 40 people per production.
Just getting everyone to arrive in the right place was a colossal hassle and I resorted to giving people GPS coordinates. But I soon discovered that accurately entering 16 numbers into a satnav just wasn’t reliable. Mistakes were too easy to make. The need for a simpler, more human way of communicating accurate locations felt clear to me, and led me to pursue a solution. After some brainstorming with my mathematician friend, the algorithm for the first three-word address was born.
What's the most memorable music-related trip you've taken?
I organised the live music for the first ever Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix when the circuit had just been built. Normally on gigs, we’d be in and out, but that week we drove out to a newly-built racetrack in the middle of a desert and sound-checked through the night, figuring out what was going on and where everything was, with all the F1 teams doing the same. So much went on that week, I think the blend of the noise, heat and intense sleep deprivation accentuated everything I can remember.
What do you listen to when you're on the road?
The radio, to enjoy the local vibe of wherever I am. Or funk music. California road trips are the best as they still play funk on the radio.
The beauty (and friendly locals) make wintry Iceland one of Chris's favourite destinations © Chris Sheldrick
Iceland. I arrived there in late December at the coldest, darkest time of year, and there was hardly anyone around. Everything was spectacular. A lot of people go there in summer, but I highly recommend the winter experience.
Which three-word-address combo you've mapped holds a lot of meaning for you?
///soothing.step.migrate. It marks the entrance to a village we visited this year called Relela in South Africa, which is pretty poorly addressed. Most homes aren’t numbered, and streets don’t have names or appear on digital maps. This can be life-threatening because emergency services face a real challenge locating patients in need. Lives have been lost waiting for an ambulance, as detailed local knowledge is needed to find patients’ homes.
At the moment, we’re working with a charity partner, Gateway Health, to assign expectant mothers in Relela with their three-word addresses, so that they have an accurate and reliable way to communicate where they are. For pregnant women requiring essential pre-natal care, it makes a world of difference if medical services can accurately locate them. And if anything goes wrong during the birth, ambulance crews now know exactly where to go to reach the mother and provide life-saving help.
For me, ///soothing.step.migrate is a three-word address that’s suitably symbolic of a town adopting a totally new system to take steps toward a safer future.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
I received a hand-carved mask from the head of the Djibouti postal service. He was passionate about how our addressing system could help his country and extended kind hospitality to us during our visit. It was an eye-opening trip and every time I see the mask, I remind myself how fortunate I was to visit a country not many others do.
Despite a packing faux pas, Chris was able to make friends in northern Mongolia © Chris Sheldrick
What is your biggest travel fail?
Packing the wrong clothes for an overnight stay with a reindeer tribe in northern Mongolia. The daytime weather was deceptively warm. At night, the temperature dropped well below zero and I just wasn’t prepared. There was a point where, no matter how many t-shirts and shorts I wore, it simply made no difference.
As the evening came in, I joked about adding another three pairs of socks to the two I was already wearing – and then promptly wore them all half an hour later! It was utterly freezing. My body largely became numb, and never again will I use daytime photos of places on the internet as a mood board for packing my bag.
What have you learned about humanity through mapping the world in a brand new way?
I’ve learnt a great deal about languages. To make what3words work in 26 languages and only use distinctive, unambiguous and suitable words for each address, we’ve had to learn many unique characteristics of different languages and cultures. For example, we removed ‘tortoise’ from our Bengali word list, as they’re considered bad luck to have in homes. There is so much to learn about every language and I’m continually fascinated by the journey this is taking us on.
Chris's bucket-list travel experience: a road trip down the Pamir Hwy through Tajikistan © NOWAK LUKASZ / Shutterstock
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I’d really like to drive the Pamir Highway through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. I’m a fan of Mongolia, which is nearby, and this looks the perfect blend of different but similar, bleak but spectacular, to be my ideal trip.
What advice would you give a first time traveller?
To take the road less travelled. All my best experiences have been in places that very few tourists have been, and when I’ve headed into the unknown. I constantly strive to push myself and take myself to places and situations that feel the least comfortable to me and the least like experiences I’ve had before.