Circles.Life has a game plan for growth

The telco startup will direct funds into acquiring talent to fuel expansion into new markets and products.

CIRCLES.LIFE just wrapped up another funding round - but it seems to never press "pause", as co-founder Abhishek Gupta laid out ambitious expansion plans at the three-year-old mobile virtual network operator.

The telco startup, whose investors include Sequoia Capital India, recently brought on board EDB Investments (EDBI) - the investment arm of the Economic Development Board.

It will direct these funds into the war for talent, which Mr Gupta told The Business Times would fuel growth into new markets and products.

Circles.Life, which has about 450 employees, has reportedly already found partners to enter Australia this quarter and Indonesia by year-end.

The management also wants to break into two more markets next year, although these have not been selected.

Shrugging off the notion that the competition is too intense, Mr Gupta said: "If you see Australia as five cities . . . each of these cities is pretty much like a Singapore in some ways . . . So, when people talk about our growth, I say we're not going from one country to four. We're going from one Singapore to 20 Singapores."

That same gung-ho attitude extends to his plans for 5G networks - which will be introduced gradually in Singapore from next year on - even though technical standards and wholesale rules have yet to be decided by regulators.

"We do have a game plan," asserted Mr Gupta, who hit back at the widespread belief that most use cases will be in the enterprise sphere.

"We don't believe that. They will largely be enterprise to begin with, but there's a huge consumer section which can be done so much better.

"I mean, IoT (the Internet of Things) and, you know, what you might do with home automation. There's a lot that you can do."

And, with Circles.Life leasing frequency from recently privatised M1 since 2016, Mr Gupta batted away the spectre of network operators one day cutting loose MVNOs like Circles.Life - whether here or in other regions.

"The question is of broader faith and belief in the partner. And, in our case, we have a relationship which is very strong," he rejoined.

"It's critical that it remains a win-win . . . and I think our partners are smart enough to realise that."

As for new investor partners, Mr Gupta is not concerned that too many cooks will spoil the broth. "We are on a global mission right now, frankly," he said.

"I think, if we find investors who have the same vision as us and would like to join for the journey, we would definitely consider - because it's a big enough endeavour that we need all hands on deck to make it happen."

With the latest funding round netting the attention of Singapore's EDBI, Mr Gupta said that support for growth "comes from the Singapore base, as well as our investor base".

He graciously quashed the notion that Circles.Life is necessarily in the same league as high-profile winners that its backers have bet on before.

"All I'm trying to say is, our investor base is very aligned with the global vision that we have," he said.

"That alignment helps when you're making decisions - with regard to which markets to go to, what kind of capital you need to put behind it, what kind of talent you need to bring on board as a result, how to set your management in a certain way."

Circles.Life's institutional investors mainly hold preference shares, which Mr Gupta told BT are distinguished by their voting rights and board seat entitlement, as business decisions involve "more leaning on the funds and, frankly, building up a very good management team".

Recent hires at the top include Waseem Yusaf, head of international launches; product head Vipin Sharma; and former Telstra executive Ajinkya Mukhopadhyay, now Circles.Life's head of international expansion and business development.

"If you have lots of rank and file, and you don't have the middle level or the senior people, then you can't really get the best output out of it," said Mr Gupta, pegging talent as a priority. He added that product managers are in demand too, as Circles.Life builds its footprint and offerings.

Though he declined to share financial figures such as capital raised and annual revenue, he maintained, without elaborating, that the average revenues per user (ARPUs) have consistently been "10 per cent to 15 per cent higher than the rest of the market".

Monthly post-paid ARPUs hovered around S$40 in recent quarters, according to rivals' bourse filings.

"It's driven by the fact that we are focused on a segment that likes to spend, and we're able to over-serve them," Mr Gupta added of the sales.

Besides telco services, Circles.Life is gunning for lifestyle-related business, with plans to tap three streams: events app Discover; insurance products; and a financial services deal he said is "still under wraps".

But, when asked whether the company would offer the same products across all future markets, Mr Gupta replied that "if you look at the digital, data-savvy consumers, surprisingly, these customers are very similar across most global cities".

"So, you know, they all want to use Uber. They all want to use Facebook. They all want to use Airbnb," he said. "They are all online, use the same phones, same services."

Mr Gupta added: "The foundations of our offerings will remain the same, but the specificity required for each market might vary depending on the specific needs of that market."