Circles. Life on the disruption of the telecommunications sector, challenging incumbents

Since its launch in 2016, Circles.Life has rocked Singapore’s telecom industry and hired major players like Singtel, M1, and StarHub.

In a chat by the fireplace at Tech’s 11th annual Asia conference yesterday (Sep 21), Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life, shares his company’s journey and talks about how it is challenging the incumbents of the market.

He had described Circles.Life as a brand that feverishly sought to address the telecommunications industry in a very different and fundamental way by building an operating system for all telecommunications companies.

Their goal is to provide a better customer experience for end users and offer more different services along with that.

Driving change in a centuries-old industry

Abhishek Gupta, Rameez Ansar and Adeel Najam, co-founders of Circles.
(LR): Abhishek Gupta, Rameez Ansar and Adeel Najam, co-founders of Circles.Life / Image credit: Circles.Life

But what motivated the founders of the mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) Circles.Life to start and fight the incumbent telecom operators?

Sharing his motivation for disrupting the telecommunications space, he said it all stems from his personal experience. Back then, no one seemed to love their telecommunications company.

“We’ve all had personal experiences with the telecommunications industry, whether it’s standing in a long queue or being on the phone trying to fix something. If anything, it’s a drawback, “she stressed.

It baffled him how an industry that “touches” almost every single person in the world could survive this way for so long.

Today, I think we are [still] very far from transforming this sector into the most innovative sector that comes to mind No one in the world has ever said telco, and this is the mission. Here we are, and that’s what still motivates me.

– Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life

Reflecting on his startup journey up to that point, he said that if he knew everything he knows now, he actually might not have stayed true to it.

“I say this in all honest ways, because it’s probably 10 times harder than I thought,” he joked. The fact that they were going to try to change “one of the most boring and old industries in the world” seemed rather naive and, of course, was no small feat.

But being an analytical person himself, Rameez felt that such naivety was very necessary.

“The long-term value of that decision was probably negative. But the question wasn’t what could go wrong? The question was, what could be fine? And if that’s okay, what happens? We imagine that this industry turns into something we all love and from which we can actually get a lot of services. “

“That day I probably wasn’t thinking logically when I decided it was going to happen. So you have to be naive, but prepared. More naive than prepared, I think. “

Be clear about “why” first.

conference rameez ansar circles.life tia 2022
Rameez Ansar at the fireplace chat during the TIA Conference 2022 / Image Credit: Screenshot from the TIA Conference 2022

Although Rameez acknowledged that it was hard to build the company, he shared that it was equally significant.

For him, every difficult moment acts as a building block of the company’s growth and makes it proactive, especially because they are looking for something “crazy” like changing a sector.

Such moments come from time to time, and a memorable one is the moment before they even launched the first market.

“Now this is a telecommunications company, there is no MVP (minimum viable product). You can’t just say “I’ve created an operating system and I’m going to start an MVP and see if it works or not”. You have to be completely ready and prepared, “she said.

However, they faced manpower problems and only had 20 people – they helped the people they needed. “It took four months for the company to run out of money,” Rameez said candidly, adding that every startup likely runs out of money a couple of times in their life.

They needed to launch quickly, within a few months, to be able to show traction, and only then could they work to raise money.

To add fuel to the fire, Rameez shared that he woke up one day and found that one of their competitors had launched something very similar to them on the market.

“They were a great player with the exact same name [and colours]even though we had the full IP and all. “

He was frustrated by the news, and every lawyer he consulted said that although they do indeed have the rights, they warned against getting into a legal battle and fighting it in court.

At the same time, it also received phone calls from investors claiming that they saw the competitors’ announcements and they too expressed the same concerns. “You guys are done and you should go home” – that was the gist of what the investors had told him.

However, when he reunited with his team, they were all on the same page. They firmly believe that they are doing something different and that the launch is worth it.

“Money won’t beat us. It’s the different way we think about it, “Rameez pointed out. Recalling a book he read titled” The Hard Things About Hard Things, “he said founders always live with some doubts – and that was the weak and the doubt. that has taken over him.

I think everyone faces this issue and I think you just need to be clear on why you are doing it, because I can tell you that each of these moments will take something away from you, but it will also give you something back. The meaning and purpose will only come if you are clear on the “why”.

– Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life

Building technology and sustainable business

When Circles.Life first started, it was based on two main insights. They felt the industry was “so bad”, especially in terms of customer experience and legacy technology – and this isn’t a problem limited to Singapore alone; it is a global problem.

It wasn’t just the customers who were unhappy, the industry was also experiencing the lowest profitability of all time. An industry simply cannot survive if both customers and the company are dissatisfied, so the only solution is to think fundamentally about the technology solution.

“You can’t solve it simply by trying to do things differently. You have to get rid of it, ”she said sharply.

He went on to cite the example of how ride-hailing has disrupted the taxi industry. Today, each region has its own taxi companies and transportation services, but has wondered why none of the taxi companies had the idea of ​​calling before.

It is not because they are stupid people. It’s not because they couldn’t do it mentally or imagine it. It’s just that unless you take the technology out and build it again, you can really solve what is fundamentally an industry problem.

– Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life

Circles-X Research and Development Center
The opening ceremony of the Circles-X research and development center / Image credit: Circles.Life

This is why Circles.Life created Circles-X, the company’s unique technology stack that allows it to launch new services in weeks rather than years and quickly launch into new countries.

“A lot of people are trying to change the telecom industry – they do that by adding components, in a way giving the telecom companies something we said we’re going to do, which is to have a complete solution – completely rebuild the whole thing, and then go out there. and do it. It’s kind of like building your own end-to-end missile solution, “he explained.

If someone wants to use their own operating system, they could simply provide them with a platform without spending five years of research and development and billions of dollars.

Following the strong growth rollout in Japan, Rameez said Circles.Life is nearing a “balanced revenue situation” between its B2B and B2C businesses.

“This was a $ 0 business two years ago and now it’s almost half that [entire] business, “he said, adding that their combined annual revenue has reached over $ 200 million.

He also stressed the importance of building a sustainable business. “You can’t change the industry if you run out of cash,” she said simply.

While there are some companies that have a high burn rate, such as those that acquire customers at higher and higher cost and then hope that they eventually turn into profit, he sees this as a very risky move.

“It’s like making some bets along the way and I don’t think we’re that kind of company, even though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these companies. I just don’t think Circles.Life’s founders are like that because we don’t know how to run that type of business. I’ll probably freak out every day because I can see the end of the line. “

“The end result for us is that we have always built the business in a sustainable way. We have never been negative on gross margin. “

Innovation is in their DNA

Although Circles.Life has its origins in Singapore, Rameez acknowledged that this is “not the ideal space to be in” to build a global platform.

However, he sees the strong need for a “category creator” in this region. Circles.Life is well positioned to fill this gap, but finds it difficult to achieve this because no one else has done something like this.

“There are a lot more dead ends and a lot more challenges. It’s also much harder to get people involved because we have to deal with a lot more round trips, dead ends and a variety of things. “

Whether it’s a vision or a talent bond, this is exactly something the founders are determined to change.

“We want to make a statement: you can create a category creator, no matter how difficult, from Singapore and Southeast Asia. There is no certainty of success, but you know what? Let’s try and see what happens. “

In the end, every company must have its own “curves”. If you don’t innovate every three or four years, you’ll stagnate, he warned.

You have to think about your business in a rather long-term way. No business in the world survives with just one act, so you have to keep thinking about these acts along the way.

– Rameez Ansar, co-founder and director of Circles.Life

Featured image credit: TIA 2022 conference screenshot