FOR DECADES, SINGAPORE’S ONLY THREE TELCOS RULED THE CELLULAR NETWORKS. ONE EXTREMELY DISGRUNTLED CUSTOMER CHANGED ALL THAT.
It took us two to three years just to put up a technology stack for our Circles-X cloud system, but now people are calling us the Netflix of telcos.
Like many in Singapore, Rameez Ansar grew weary of the limited choices in mobile price plans and lack of transparency in the major telcos here. Unlike many, he decided to do something about it. “It was a burning frustration that eventually boiled over,” says the former business consultant. “That an industry that touches everyone could be so backward in terms of innovation was unbelievable to me.”
So he founded Circles.Life with Abhishek Gupta and Adeel Najam, making it the world’s ﬁrst fully digital telecom operator.
Since its launch in 2016, Circles.Life has been enticing customers with its generous and comparatively affordable data plans. A few months ago, it upgraded its signature 20GB for $20 offering to an unlimited data plan for the same price. By going digital, Circles.Life is able to save 95 percent of operational costs, which is how it manages to share these savings with customers.
“Companies like Virgin Mobile are just brand guys,” he says of the Singtel joint venture that folded after a year in Singapore. “They didn’t enter the market with a technology-ﬁrst approach. It took us two to three years just to put up a technology stack for our Circles-X cloud system, but now people are calling us the Netﬂix of telcos,” the 37-year-old says.
The catchy moniker belies the hard work that went into building the company. Finding the seed money was easy, says Ansar – they had the support of friends and angel investors – but the second round was another story. Given their backgrounds in companies like Temasek Holdings, McKinsey, BCG and Bain Capital, the three founders had no trouble getting any meeting they wanted, but it took over a hundred of them before they could raise enough to get started. Says Ansar: “It really shocked us because I thought this was going to be the easy part. Turns out that with start-ups, everything is the hard part.”
What kept him going was his belief in his mission. “Why are we doing this? Why does the status quo have to keep existing? I think a lot of our people have bought into this vision, too, and have this feeling of righteousness that comes from fundamentally believing that we are righting some wrong,” he says.
This zeal has led to a number of headline-grabbing marketing campaigns, including a tongue-in-cheek open letter to competitors Singtel and Starhub. Others, like its “data deprivation” campaign posters that appeared to mimic ads on the ﬁght against social issues like poverty, didn’t sit so well with some people. “When you try and create a new space, you will make some mistakes,” admits Ansar. “People can have strong views on things and we can’t manage everyone, but we try to be more thoughtful.”
The controversies did little to dampen people’s enthusiasm for this rebellious start-up. Zen Desk, a customer service software company that Circles.Life works with, reports a 97 percent customer satisfaction rate for the telco, compared to the average 60 percent for the rest of the industry.
Circles.Life has met its goal of hitting 5 percent market share last year and it’s only just getting started. Now that it’s closed its Series C funding round, led by Sequoia India, Ansar and his team are primed to take on the region. This month, it launched in Taiwan, followed by Australia.
To motivate staff, the company started a programme that rewards performance with learning and development opportunities as well as six months of stock outside of their bonuses and base pay. “None of our name cards have titles,” Ansar points out. “When you create the right vision, direction and environment, and you reward people for sticking to it, that’s when you step back and let them actually do the work.”
He is also looking to add more useful features to its app, such as events and phone and travel insurance. And he has the sheer size and absurdity of his angst-derived dream to thank for all this. “The fact that a lot of people I talked to about this before it all began thought it was ridiculous just increased my interest in doing it.”
Photography TAN WEI TE