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''Telecommunications has been around for a long time, but it is one of the least developed industries, taking too long to revolutionise… what is trying to do is shift the way telecommunications works and introduce a system that delivers a completely digital experience.'' - Abhishek Gupta.

Abhishek Gupta, Co-founder of Circles Life

Dec 27, 2019 5:50 AM

MANY START-UPS DREAM of being called a ''disruptor'', but few have sufficiently upended their respective markets to earn that moniker. Circles.Life, on the other hand, gets labelled that in spades.

Launched just three years ago, the digital mobile service has captured a 5 percent share of the Singapore telco market by offering its customers lower prices, no-contract plans and the freedom to manage their own mobile plans digitally, among other sweeteners. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the fact that newer telcos have copied Circles.Life's business model speaks volumes. That older, bigger telcos have also scrambled to restructure their subscription plans says something else.

On the marketing side of things, Circles.Life raised eyebrows with its full-page open letter published in newspapers in April 2019 mocking established rivals for their ''lock-in contracts, poor customer service and rigid mobile plans'', and their subsequent efforts to overhaul those plans. There were other audacious marketing stunts, such as the ongoing ''Telco Freedom'' crowdfunding campaign aimed at helping anyone (on a first-come-first-serve basis) bail out of their existing mobile contracts.

For the three co-founders - Abhishek Gupta, Rameez Ansar and Adeel Najam - disruption seems to come naturally. They pull no punches when critiquing their rivals and the industry, and happily toot their horns when they get a chance. Mr Gupta was a McKinsey & Company business analyst and a Standard Chartered private equity associate director before co-founding Circles-Life in 2013. He spoke on behalf of the trio:

How has 2019 been for Circles.Life? You've had quite a few milestones. It's been both rewarding and challenging. In the past year, many new telco players entered the market, offering no-contract plans and higher data - in other words, following our path. Our biggest milestone of the year, however, is the fact that we were able to launch in two countries, Taiwan and Australia, 2.5 months apart from each other. This the first time you hear of a telco that's growing at a pace not unlike that of Facebook, Uber and other e-commerce companies. It's never happened in the telco world before.

Why have you held back your entry into Indonesia, which was announced to take place in 2019? And which other markets are you moving into next? We are looking at two other South-east Asian markets in the first half of 2020. For Indonesia, we are waiting for the right time. Indonesia just completed their presidential election this year and we wanted to ensure the country had settled down before we did anything. We're happy to announce we're launching there in a matter of months.

You hit 5 percent of the market share in Singapore last year. What are you doing to increase that? We have reached over 5 percent market share by going online. However, we now see incremental revenue streams in the offline space. For this, we have ambitions to partner like-minded companies in scaling O2O, the postpaid SIM card that lets users activate their physical SIM card in five minutes in four easy steps, anytime, anywhere. Other players have O2O but the main difference is they only have O2O for prepaid SIM. Postpaid SIM were previously regulated, and customers would have to be verified in person by an authorised third party before they can receive their SIM card.

Singapore is predominantly a postpaid SIM population, with 70 percent of mobile users using postpaid SIM - a big number that can potentially open up our distribution channels across more verticals. This strategy has currently increased our transactions by 15 percent in the past one month. We've also expanded our distribution touchpoints through partnerships, such as having pickup points at 7-Eleven. No one else has done this for postpaid SIM cards in Singapore.

Meanwhile, we've seen competitors slash prices to grab bigger market shares. But we don't want to compete that way because companies will lose out trying to slash their prices to the lowest. For us, innovation is key and we use that to ensure we customise and personalise our digital service to make the experience enjoyable… So our ecosystem strategy is this: We will expand beyond telco and leverage on our Circles-X technology. One example is Discover, an AI-powered events app that was launched at the end of 2018. We've expanded this feature into Discover Movies, which allows users to view movie trailers, check seat availability, nearest cinema locations and purchase tickets. This extension was pioneered after focus group discussions and market research showed that there was a lack of apps that could consolidate all movie information. We are the only telco that offers other lifestyle products all in one app, and our NPS and CSAT scores (both indicating customer satisfaction) are very high.

Disruption seems to be the very DNA of the company. Who, what or which company inspires you? We launched Circles.Life to bring the same level of sophistication to the telco world that we see in other industries and businesses such as AirBnb, Facebook and Uber. Telecommunications has been around for a long time, but it is one of the least developed industries, taking too long to revolutionise. Uber was the product of bringing cab-hailing services online, Netflix used to do bricks-and-mortar movie rentals, and Gojek has expanded to become a virtual personal assistant. What Circles.Life is trying to do is shift the way telecommunications works and introduce a system that delivers a completely digital experience. This is an industry that we as consumers touch on regularly. And to enhance their experience, we believe that we have to create a technology stack which is completely in the cloud and run by one organisation.

If you could invent a technology for tomorrow, what would that look like? I would invent True Artificial Intelligence that's different from AI because, well, I have yet to see any AI that makes a tangible perceptible difference in our day-to-day life. The issue, of course, is that no one really has good quality information on us, so it's a bit of ''garbage in, garbage out''. At Circles.Life, we believe, the natural owner of all this information are the information highways currently being manned by the providers of connectivity. Being a telco hopefully allows us to create that technology sooner.

As a manager, what qualities do you look for most when hiring someone? I look for alignment with Circles.Life's values, which are (1) keep on learning and growing; (2) be open-minded and respect all views; (3) work hard, work smart and take ownership; (4) stay humble and (5) act with integrity. I look for someone with a strong desire to be better. Without an inherent desire to see a better tomorrow, it is difficult to go through the tough start-up journey. Only by constantly challenging and changing ourselves can we bring better outcomes to our customers... I also look for long-term intent. Start-up life exposes you to dizzying heights and the absolute pits in a matter of days - if not the same day. Knowing that you are in it for the long run is key to being able to take those ups and downs.

Tell us about your daily workflow, and what you do to relax. On weekdays, I wake up earlier than anyone else and do all the ''thinking work'' before the day even begins for the rest of the country. The morning pre-work session gives me the opportunity to step back and take a bigger picture view of things. The rest of the day is then for single-minded, in-the-moment ''doing work''. This single change has made me and my teams twice as productive. My downtime is on the weekends. I used to love kayaking before I became a busy entrepreneur. Now I just read books and spend quality time with friends and family.