Antler VC Cast Episode 4 - Giving power back to customers with Abhishek Gupta

In this episode, we speak with Abhishek Gupta, one of the founders of Circles.Life, a personalised, digital network provider that is disrupting the telecommunications space. Abhishek reveals the birth story of Circles.Life, which launched in 2016, and has rapidly grown across Singapore, Taiwan and Australia. We also delve into the founders’ ideation process of their product, their unique customer-centric approach, and their mission-driven company culture.

On product iterations 

“We had our own sense of what makes a good product, what is a good experience and how it is shaped on a pretty real-time basis. You may start with something very basic, and the product improves, and you feel like, why isn't the teleco world moving in the same direction? Why aren't things improving in that place?” - Abhishek Gupta

“So the idea was to help customers feel three very specific things. Firstly, a sense of transparency, because you don't know what happens with telcos. Your bill could be 100 dollars one month and the next month it could be 50, and you don't know why. So a sense of transparency is important. A sense of control, because if you have control over things, as you did in the case of Uber or some of the other products, you actually felt much happier about it.” - Abhishek Gupta

On controlling technology for the benefit of customers

“Bringing power back to customers means a few things. How does that translate into speed? It must mean your products are the most desired and the most relevant. You're doing things at a fast enough pace. So there's a little bit of that that's built in just top-down, just in terms of what is. If you're going to be a part of this organization, this is what it means. You must have a strong orientation towards customers, and that's one part.” - Abhishek Gupta

“The benefit of having that in the cloud is a few things. We control that technology, and that means we can actually change the products we have on a very short notice. On an hourly basis, I can change the product and add many things to it. If I want to change distribution partners, if I want to provide other services, be it financial services, it can be done.” - Abhishek Gupta

On the fundraising journey

Jussi:

“You gave a very nice teaser there earlier, which I want to come back to. It’s related to not having revenue in the first three and a half years-- I want to tie that a bit to your fundraising journey. How did that whole interplay work with getting investors to support you? You had fantastic backers. Founders Fund, Sequoia, EDBI and Warburg Pincus in the latest round. How did you manage to convince the investors about your vision when you didn't have any kind of hard figures to show for and how did that fundraising journey go?”

Abishek:

“So our first round was, of course, friends and family, which was people who knew us for a while. That was relatively easy. The real outside money is where we struggled, and we got the first round from folks such as the ones behind First Pacific, and they were the investors in PLDT in Philippines, ran many businesses in Indonesia, and they understood that if done right, this business actually holds a lot of potential. Because teleco as an industry is a five trillion dollar industry worldwide.

We also aligned them that we will not make revenue for some time to come. I think this is very hard to do if you go after the non-traditional. If you went after the standard venture capital fund, you might get pushed into launching something because you feel fast or, for example, don't have to worry about the product being perfect, and all of those kinds of truisms that get thrown around a lot, when they're being applied to us. They were not applied, which I think was critical for this work.”

Jussi:

“At least in Southeast Asia, like I find that VCs are almost overly focused on financial metrics. In Silicon Valley, is it different?”

Abishek:

“I would say even the Silicon Valley ones might have said, ‘Look, launch your product quickly, don't worry about it being perfect.’ This is one of those things you could see everywhere, right?”

On having no heroes

Puja:

“You mentioned in your company, you don't have titles. Why is that? Since all three of you are founders, the CEO usually is the one to inspire, set the vision. What’s behind this policy?”

Abishek:

“What we've noticed that happened in the startup world is that there's a lot of showboating. There's a little bit of founders being gifts of God, and stuff like that, which is directly against our values, as well as our missions, which we've now embedded into the culture of the company.”

Puja:

“What is your company’s mission?”

Abhishek:

”There are three missions. Power back to customers.  The second one is more around building a personalized digital service, which is the best in the world. The third one is being a great place to work and grow. So no one person is actually greater than the team.”

Puja:

“Is everything looked at as a team effort?”

Abishek:

“People talk about Steve Jobs being this great entrepreneur or this great business person. The reality is, he would not have managed to do it without a great team. We hear about how Mark Zuckerberg came up with the first version of Facebook, but the truth is, he probably managed to inspire a team to work in a certain way. Hence, having no heroes, and having a system where people feel they can speak up and talk about anything, no matter how complicated a topic it is, how touchy a topic it is, was very important.”

Timecode highlights

[15:58] Abhishek Gupta shares how having control of technology can effectively improve services.

[29:21] Behind the bold marketing strategies, Abhishek Gupta reveals the simple ideas and points they wish to prove.

[39:08] Without titles in the company, Abhishek Gupta reveals how it helps the company and goes along with their missions.

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