How Rameez, Adeel, Abhishek are shaking up the mobile industry in Singapore

Singapore: Circles.Life, a fast-growing Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), started as an idea three acquaintances hashed out sometime in 2013.

Rameez Ansar, Abhishek Gupta, and Adeel Najam were frustrated with the service they were getting from mobile operators in Singapore.

They felt that although the way people were using their mobile phones has changed dramatically, the telecom operators (telcos) have not evolved the customer experience to match and have stuck with traditional plans and services. They do not offer modern customers the flexibility and customisation they need.

They concluded that among the many underserved segments, the biggest market gap is that of data and technology-savvy customers who use large amounts. People are consuming more data due to technological breakthroughs and changing usage habits but were limited by current plans offered by mobile operators.

The trio set off to lease network bandwidth from M1, the third largest mobile operator in Singapore and created an MVNO to cater to the needs of this segment. Their aim was to be the Netflix of the mobile industry for heavy data users and to create a telco experience to disrupt the industry akin to what Uber and Grab did to the taxi industry.

Gaining market share in Singapore by offering data-hungry mobile users affordable plans that they can customise at the click of a button, Circles.Life has captured 5 per cent of all mobile users within two and a half years of its launch in June 2016. This impressive considering Singapore is a saturated market that has 150 percent mobile phone penetration.

Costs are kept low because they do not have a physical store and use digital technology extensively. 95 percent of operational costs are saved as result.

Easy-to-use web and app interfaces allow customers to customise their plans and user experience online. This is all possible because of their cloud-based digital platform, Circles-X, which handles network operations, customer service, logistics, and delivery. With this system and through the smart use of customer data, they are able to react quickly to customer preferences, launch or change products within weeks, and cater to the needs of the market.

It is thus not surprising that customer satisfaction is at 90 percent – much higher than the industry average of between 60 to 70 percent.

The three co-founders all have South Asian backgrounds.

Abhishek came to Singapore from New Delhi to study at Hwa Chong Junior College which is one of Singapore’s top pre-university schools. He graduated from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University on a Singapore Airlines scholarship and then went on to work at esteemed consulting firms like Accenture, McKinsey, Bain Capital and for Standard Chartered Private Equity.

Rameez is a graduate of National University of Singapore and Harvard Business School. He went on to work for Singapore government investment arm Temasek Holdings and BCG Consulting.

Adeel hails from Pakistan and graduated from Islamabad’s National University of Science and Technology, did his MBA at INSEAD Singapore and worked at Nokia, Credit Suisse, Frost and Sullivan and Singapore telco StarHub.

Starting with a few chairs and tables at Singapore’s start-up hub BLOCK71 at Ayer Rajah Crescent, Circles.Life was born in 2014. It has grown so rapidly that it has moved 6 times since to bigger premises.

Besides affordable data and “no contract” plans, Circles.Life is known for its edgy over-the-top and sometimes controversial advertising and promotional gimmicks.

From getting local Instagram influencers Youtiao666 – who are a couple of outrageous but gorgeous ladies – to spray paint billboards in subways – which by the way is illegal in Singapore (American Michael Fay was canned and jailed in 1994 for doing this) – to doling out free cash in the middle of Singapore’s Raffles Place financial district, they are never out of the limelight for very long.

This flamboyance is not without problems. They had to pull an advertisement which a local female personality and ex-politician accused of being “sexist and derogatory”. The cash dispensing event was cut short by the police when a riot nearly broke out.

On the business side, there are new challenges to meet as the incumbent operators have responded by launching plans that offer more data. In addition, competition will heat up with the imminent launch of a fourth mobile operator, TPG of Australia, in the middle of this year.

In spite of this, Circles.Life remains upbeat. They said their customers are value sensitive and are confident they will continue to grow their market share by delivering innovation and customer first features.

Having built a research and development team in Bengaluru which focuses on machine learning and artificial intelligence, Circles.Life is specifically looking into how to better use the large amounts of data being generated by its customers. “Discover” is a feature which has emerged as a result. It recommends events, services and products based on customer’s preferences and allows the company to start expanding into non-telco services. They are also exploring services such as payments and financial technology.

Just last week, Circles.Life announced that it had secured a round of funding from Sequoia India which will allow it to expand into other markets and build on its digital service capabilities. Details of the funding size were not disclosed but it said it will be investing S$50 million each into Taiwan and Australia.
Next on the horizon is a service launch in Indonesia.