Abhishek Gupta, co-founder of Circles, shares with TM Forum how Circles has expanded from being a mobile communications operator to providing its cloud-based digital telco SaaS platform to other telcos.
When Circles Life launched its mobile communications services in the highly competitive Singaporean market in 2016, it didn’t just promise to differentiate on customer service. It built a whole new cloud-native digital telco stack, combining martech and telco-tech into a unified SaaS platform. Eliminating the need to purchase BSS, charging and billing third-party software (amongst others) allowed Circles to keep its operational costs low and its service options flexible. Circles still operates as a communications service provider (CSP) in Singapore, but it also provides its cloud-based digital telco platform and mobile operator experience to telcos in other markets under the Circles X brand. Abhishek Gupta, co-founder of Circles, explains the company’s philosophy and business model, as well as its plans for international growth.
Why did you establish Circles Life and how did Circles X come about?
When we looked at launching Circles.Life in Singapore, customer experience in the telecoms industry was horrendous with net promoter scores as low as -20 or -40, compared to +50 for Apple or +60 for Uber. We saw an opportunity to build a much better digital user experience, delivered over an ultra-low-cost, cloud-based system. Today our average NPS is +50 and our operations are very efficient — we cover the Singapore market with fewer than 100 employees. One reason our NPS is so high is that we worked on the end-to-end user experience so that any change from the front-end mobile app links all the way down to the underlying back-end system. What many telcos get wrong is they make great websites and apps that the underlying systems are not designed to handle. Every time they want to make a change it takes months, whereas we have automated most of these processes.
But it was never just about offering services in Singapore. Circles Life was also a proof of concept for Circles X and launching a digital mobile brand in a highly competitive market. Telcos worldwide all face the same challenges with return on capital, customer experience and digitization. It isn’t a matter of telcos not wanting to serve their customers well. They have been held hostage by legacy systems and BSS technology that they’ve invested in over 20 to 30+ years, and the spaghetti of integration and code, which make it very, very difficult to make any meaningful changes. We always believed in taking customer experience as our starting point and developing services for the global market. So far, we have partnered with telcos in Japan and Indonesia and have also launched services in Taiwan and Australia. Now we want Circles X to become the platform for digital telcos in dozens of countries worldwide.
Circles Life launched as a greenfield service provider; how do you adapt Circles X to legacy telco systems?
We can launch a digital telco for an established service provider within six to 12 weeks. All we need is a small group of the telco’s people who we can train in the marketing, operations and customer services processes involved in running the new digital telco, and access to their systems via only three nodes so we can connect our cloud native technology stack straight to their (home location register) HLR. Everything above the HLR is based on a single software platform that Circles can provide, so there is no need to integrate it with the hundreds of systems that already exist.
Take the example of what we did for our customer in Japan. We worked with the local Japan team to agree the user experience and to work on local nuances of the Japanese market, like the ID and KYC requirements needed for Japan. It took us a couple of months to complete this work stream. Once that was done, we worked with a group of 20 people to launch the digital telco in 2021 – I remember sitting in Singapore launching it remotely because of COVID lockdowns; I clicked the button and Circles X was live and the digital marketing campaigns started in Japan. I believe this is the first ever digital mobile brand launched remotely without sending in teams doing integration. Once it was live, our high level of automation made the digital telco easier to run. After the first month, the customer told us “We know you were trying to sell us the technology. Are you now going to tell us to hire 200 people?” But they didn’t need to hire 200 more people because we had automated most of the work processes.
Once the new digital service is live, telcos can then give their existing customers the option of migrating over, offering them a higher value than they used to get. This becomes a market-led migration to digitization, as opposed to ‘I’m going to change processes in order to transform’.
Another benefit of Circles X is as features are added regularly via sprints into the cloud-based platform, telcos can use what’s been developed for other customers. So, for example, if a certain price plan works for a specific target group in one country, we can make it available to telcos in other countries and they don’t have to pay anything for it. There’s no planning required, there’s no massive overhauling of the system needed. The next day it appears in their system and with a click of the button, the marketing campaign launches in a new market.
Circles X offers both software-as-a-service and consulting services. Can you detail your business model?
Our software offers the best digital customer experience at the lower unit cost. But some operators will need help to get started as a new digital telco, and that is the customer success services part of Circles X. We have a knowledge transfer model, where we start off running, then instructing, and finally transferring the operations to the operator. An analogy would be starting as a chauffeur of a car, then being the driving instructor, before becoming a passenger. It’s important to us that we’re not just a vendor. We understand the challenges of telcos due to our own operator experience. We make sure we are in the business together so that if they succeed, we succeed. Having skin in the game can take many shapes and forms, and we are very flexible in our commercial agreements. This enables me to have a very frank conversation with a telco CEO and discuss if something is not working well.
You have international ambitions for Circles X. What are some of the biggest challenges to your growth plans?
The real challenge lies not in technology, but in working in an industry which is used to making decisions over years. And it lies in what’s at stake for the people who are making these decisions. They are in a tough spot. They are trying to be revolutionary but it’s very hard going from a traditional system to a new system and a new way of working. But I am optimistic because there are visionary CEOs, like KDDI and Axiata, who are leading the way in digital telco transformations ahead of the telecom industry.
Circles is a digital telecom technology company with operations globally. Circles is leading the transformation of the telco industry with a unified digital telco SaaS platform, Circles X, currently supporting millions of subscribers across our own mobile brands and partner markets.
Circles is backed by global investors such as Sequoia, Warburg Pincus, EDBI and Founders Fund – renowned institutions with a track record of backing industry-shaking innovators.
To learn more, visit www.circles.co.