Since its launch in 2016, Circles.Life has been shaking up Singapore’s telco industry and taking on major players such as Singtel, M1 and StarHub.
In a fireside chat at Tech in Asia’s 11th annual conference yesterday (September 21), Rameez Ansar, the co-founder and director of Circles.Life, shares his company’s journey and talks about how he is challenging market incumbents.
He had described Circles.Life as a brand that has been feverishly trying to take on the telco industry in a very different, fundamental way by building an operating system for all telcos.
Their goal is to provide a better customer experience for end users, and offer multiple different services alongside that.
Driving change to an age-old industry
But what motivated the founders of mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Circles.Life to start up and fight the telco incumbents?
Sharing about his motivation in disrupting the telco space, he said that it all stems from his personal experience. Back then, no one seemed to love their telco.
“We have all had personal experiences with the telco industry, whether it’s staying in a long queue, or being on the phone trying to get something fixed. If anything, it’s an inconvenience,” he pointed out.
It baffled him how an industry that ‘touches’ almost every single person in the world could survive in such a manner for so long.
Today, I think we’re [still] very far away from turning this industry into the most innovative industry that comes to mind. Nobody in the world ever said telco, and that’s the mission. We’re on it, and that’s what still motivates me.– Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life
Reflecting on his startup journey thus far, he said that if he knew everything that he knows now, he actually might not have stuck at this.
“I mean it in all honest ways, because it’s probably 10 times harder that I thought,” he quipped. The fact that they were going to attempt to change “one of the most stodgy, old industries in the world” felt rather naive, and obviously, no mean feat.
But being an analytical person himself, Rameez felt that such naivety is much needed.
“The long-term value for that decision was probably negative. But the question was not what could go wrong? The question was, what could go right? And if it goes right, what then? We imagine this industry changing into something that we all love and can actually get a lot of services from.”
“That day I was probably not thinking logically when I decided that this is going to happen. So you have to be naive, but prepared. More naive than prepared, I think.”
Be clear about the ‘why’ first
Although Rameez acknowledged that it has been tough building up the company, he shared that it has been equally meaningful.
To him, every tough moment serves as the building block of the company’s growth and makes it purposeful, especially since they’re going after something “crazy” like changing an industry.
Such moments come every now and then, and a memorable one is the time before they even launched the first market.
“This is a telco, there is no MVP (minimum viable product). You can’t just say ‘I built an operating system and I’m going to launch an MVP and see if it works or not.’ You have to be fully ready and prepared,” he said.
However, they faced manpower issues and only had 20 people — half the people needed. “This was four months before the company was going to run out of money,” said Rameez candidly, adding that every startup probably runs out of money a few times in their lifetime.
It was an urgent situation. They needed to quickly launch within a few months to be able to show traction, and only then, could they work on raising money.
To add fuel to the fire, Rameez shared that he woke up one day and found out that one of their competitors had launched something very similar to them in the market.
“They were a big player with the exact same name [and colours], even though we had the full IP and everything.”
He was frustrated at the news and every lawyer he consulted said that while they indeed have the rights, they cautioned against entering into a legal battle and fighting it out in court.
At the same time, he also received calls from investors saying that they have seen the competitor’s ads and they too voiced the same concerns. “You guys are done and should go home” — that was what investors had told him.
However, when he regrouped with his team, they were all on the same page. They strongly believe that they’re doing something different and that it was worthwhile going ahead with the launch.
“Money is not going to beat us. It’s the different way we’re thinking about it,” stressed Rameez. Recalling a book he read titled ‘The Hard Things About Hard Things’, he said that founders always live with some doubts — and this was the weak and doubt that took over him.
I think everyone faces this and I think you need to just be clear about why you’re doing this, because I can tell you that each one of these moments will take away something from you, but also give back something to you. The meaning and purpose will only come if you’re clear about the ‘why’.– Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life
Building technology and a sustainable business
When Circles.Life first started out, they were relying on two main insights. They felt that the industry was “so bad”, especially in terms of customer experience and legacy technology — and this is not an issue that’s limited to Singapore alone; it’s a global problem.
It wasn’t just the customers who were unhappy, the industry too was going through the lowest profitability of all times. An industry simply cannot survive if both the customers and business are unhappy, so the only solution to that is fundamentally thinking of the technology solution.
“You can’t solve it by just trying to do things differently. You have to get rid of it,” he said sharply.
He went on to cite the example of how ride-hailing has disrupted the taxi industry. Today, every region has its own taxi and ride-hailing companies, but he questioned why none of the taxi companies came up with the idea of ride-hailing first.
It’s not because they’re stupid people. It’s not because they couldn’t do it mentally or imagine it. It’s just, unless you take out the technology and build it again, you can’t really solve what is fundamentally an industry problem.– Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life
This is why Circles.Life built Circles-X, the company’s unique technology stack that enables it to launch new services in weeks instead of years, and to rapidly launch in new countries.
“Many people try to change the telco industry — they’re doing it by adding components, sort of providing the telco with something what we said we’re going to do, which is to have a full-stack solution — totally rebuild the whole thing, and then go out there and do it. It’s kind of like building your own end-to-end rocket solution,” he explained.
If someone wants to use their operating system, they could simply give the platform without them having to spend five years of R&D and billions of dollars.
Following their high-growth launch in Japan, Rameez said that Circles.Life is getting close to almost a “balanced revenue situation” between its B2B and B2C businesses.
“This is a business that was $0 in revenue two years ago, and now, it’s almost half of the [entire] business,” he said, adding that their overall annual revenue has achieved over US$200 million.
He also stressed the importance of building a sustainable business. “You can’t change the industry if you run out of cash,” he said simply.
While there are certain businesses that have a high burn rate such as those that acquire customers at an increasingly high cost and then eventually hope that it will turn into profit, he sees this as a very risky move.
“That’s like making a few bets down the road and I don’t think we’re that kind of company, though I don’t think there is anything wrong with such companies. I just don’t think the founders at Circles.Life are like that because we don’t know how to operate that kind of business. I’ll probably freak out everyday because I can see the end of the line.”
“The bottomline for us is we’ve always built the business in a sustainable way. We’ve never been gross margin negative.”
Innovation is in their DNA
Although Circles.Life has Singapore origins, Rameez acknowledged that this is indeed not the ideal space to be to building a global platform.
However, he sees the strong need for there to be a “category creator” in this region. Circles.Life is well-positioned to plug this gap, but he finds it hard to achieve this because nobody else has done something similar.
“There is a lot more dead ends and a lot more challenges. It’s also a lot more difficult to keep people engaged because we have to go through a lot more round trips, dead ends, and a variety of things.”
Regardless if it’s a vision or talent constraint, this is exactly something that the founders are determined to change.
“We want to make a statement — that you can build a category creator, no matter how hard it is, from Singapore and Southeast Asia. There’s no surety of success, but you know what? Let’s give it a shot and see what happens.”
At the end of the day, every business has to have its “curves”. If you don’t innovate every three to four years, you’re going to stagnate, he cautioned.
You have to think of your business in a pretty long-term way. No business in the world survives with just one act, so you have to keep thinking of these acts along the way.– Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life
Featured Image Credit: Screenshot of TIA Conference 2022