Marathon Series: The Singapore telco company with the heart of a SaaS startup

Today for my marathon series has brought me to Singapore.

Abhishek Gupta is the co-founder of Circles Life, which provides a modern mobile experience.

The reason I’m excited about this interview is that it isn’t just a SaaS that could be created by one person on a computer. Abhishek had to come up with the idea, find partnerships with established companies and convince customers to switch carriers.

None of those things are easy. I want to find out how he did it.

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Abhishek Gupta

Abhishek Gupta

Circles Life

Abhishek Gupta is the co-founder of Circles Life, which provides a modern mobile experience.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. I’m here in Singapore because I wanted to travel the world and understand how entrepreneurship is done outside the U.S. and bring that back to my audience of entrepreneurs. Hopefully, we can pick up some ideas. Is it okay to say maybe steal some ideas outside the U.S.?

Abhishek: Well, I hope so. I hope you’re innovating enough.

Andrew: I think so. Because the thing is that we have in the U.S. been thinking, everyone is stealing our ideas, everyone is doing the eBay of their country. And what we missed was the opposite was starting to happen, that people were going into China and recognizing, for example, that bike share is a thing. And they bring back bike sharing to the U.S, right? Which I interviewed a founder who did that. We need to be aware of what’s going on outside the world and bring back some of their ideas to us. And so that’s partially why I’m here. The other part of the reason why I’m here is I want to run a marathon and every continent. And so I flew to Mongolia, the coldest part of Asia at this time of year, I ran 26.2 miles. And then I flew here to Singapore, where I heard business getting done.

And one of the people have been dying to get to know is I was so worried when I heard from your team that maybe you guys weren’t going to be here or late. I thought, “No, I want to meet him.” The voice you guys are hearing is Abhishek Gupta. He is the co-founder of Circles.Life. I’m not going to use the formal definition of what you guys do description. Here’s what I understand. People who want a phone number and phone service can come to you and get that. But more than that, they get a much more modern experience with their phone company, an app that makes sense, a service that will turn on. I’ve seen people get blown away by the fact that you’ll turn on their service and like middle of the night Sunday, they call you, you turn on their phone service.

And then other features that come on board that are much more modern. That’s what you guys do. The reason I’m especially excited about you is this is not just a SaaS that you could create by yourself on a computer, you’ve got to come up but this idea, you’ve got to partner with established companies, you’ve got to work a fine line by kind of competing with them but also partnering up with them, you’ve got to tell people, they should switch their phone service to a brand new company. All these things are not easy.

We’re going to find out how he did it and how he’s growing thanks to two phenomenal sponsors. The first will host your website right, it’s called HostGator. The second will let you hire phenomenal developers, it’s called Toptal. Abhi, I’m just going to adjust your mic one more time here. I want to make sure you sound as crisp and clear as possible. So weird the first thing I do is touch my guest on the chest. Abhi, revenue. Where are you guys now?

Abhishek: Well, we’re now hitting by the end of 2019, we should be making upwards of $150 million on . . .

Andrew: $150 million by the end of this year.

Abhishek: That’s right.

Andrew: And last year, what was it?

Abhishek: Last year was . . . so we’ve grown more than 200%. By the end of this year, we would have grown more than 200%. And the context there . . .

Andrew: So last year was under $75 million, somewhere between $60 and 75. The company is how old?

Abhishek: The company is now five and a half years old. I would say the genesis actually goes way back. This goes back to my first experience with technology where I remember being completely fascinated The first time I picked up a phone, a mobile phone and you know someone was speaking through it. I’m like, “This has to be a joke. Someone is like, you know, playing a trick on me. I’m sure it’s like recorded. It’s something else.” So there was always this fascination. So yes, the company is 5 years old but the dream goes back 20 years, or maybe more.

Andrew: I kind of have been wondering, I said, “Where is this guy who seems to have like Bain Capital, McKinsey, this big company background? Accenture. How does he come up with this idea?” But let me ask you this, let me bring up the most challenging thing that I wanted to bring up just to get out of the way. As soon as I landed, the first thing I did was what I do every time I land in a new country, I went and bought a SIM card. I went to the woman behind the counter and I said, “Can I please have Circles.Life? This is the thing I’ve been hearing about.” And she said, “Oh, yeah, I know it.”

But she said, “I can’t have it.” I said, “Why not?” She said, “What we sell here is basically these temporary cards that you prepay.” I said, “Okay, what’s your price?” And she told me a price that was 30 bucks for 99 gigs, which coming from the U.S. we’re talking about roughly $22 for 99 gigs, shockingly low. I pay $50 to get up to 10 gigs in the U.S. to give you a sense. Anyway, that’s not super low. How are you guys going to compete with that? I thought you guys were going to offer the lowest price possible. And that’s how you’re going to get into the market?

Abhishek: See, I think it’s a very interesting question, a very important question. And it goes back to how telcos have evolved over a period of time. Telcos have historically been these big behemoths, these guys who have billions of dollars who get into a cash position by paying for a lot of money for the licenses. And, look, once you put that kind of money to work, you’re essentially trying to make a lot more money back from customers. And the focus shifts away from customer experience, which is what it really should be about. So even your example of landing at the airport and then going to a shop, now you had to look for a shop, you had to go talk to the person and figure out amongst the 100 plans that they had which plan you should by.

And that person would probably have shown you one plan because she or he was incentivized to make a lot more money off that plan. But look, you’re leaving tomorrow evening, tomorrow morning, actually, in these three days, you could watch Netflix day in and day out and still not use 99 GV. So why is that the right plan for you? So just the whole buying experience, the whole discovery process . . .

Andrew: I did say, “can I just have 10 for even $5 off?” She said, “No.”

Abhishek: No, that’s the thing. And let me tell you this, why is that the case? Why is it that the service where we should pay the most amount of money perhaps in your life? There’s nothing else so we should pay thousands of dollars every month, every year, in some cases, and there you have such a bad experience. I don’t know anything which feels and looks like that. And that really is at the heart of what’s happened in the telco industry.

Andrew: So you’re not looking to beat them on price, you’re looking to beat them on experience?

Abhishek: Absolutely. Beat them on flexibility, beat them on transparency, beat them on control that our digital data savvy consumers enjoy. So it goes back to wanting to go after, say, Uber customers or Facebook, you know, folks who actually like digital services or all. They’re all about control, transparency, fairness. If they love a brand, like if they love Apple, they love that brand with their heart and soul. But if they dislike a brand, there is no coming back. And you know, you see this in things like . . . if you look at Net Promoter Scores for some of these services, telcos worldwide have a Net Promoter Score of negative 24 to negative 25. That’s ridiculous. That means people at net, the hate the telcos. If you look at good services, like the Netflix’s, Uber of the world has positive 40, 50. So is the same customers, but they know how to love. It’s not like they hate on everything. But telcos are all. It’s a bad experience.

Andrew: I know, you talk a lot about being loved. And so the first thing I did when I prepared was I went to see, do people really love you? And I do this for all my guests. One guest has been emailing me a lot saying, “Can you edit out the fact that you looked at all my negative reviews there for a long time.” But I did it for you and I did see, a lot of positivity a lot of people and I even like from a site called CD, I got a quote from someone who helped me understand why they like you. I get this. Here’s when I really got it. I was sitting downstairs in preparation for coming up here. I had an avocado sandwich. And I couldn’t connect to the internet. And I was just sitting there with no internet. And I thought, “Maybe I ran out of the 99 gigs. What did I do?”

So I had to figure out how do I know how many gigs I have left? Oh, the salesperson, I always asked them, “What do I punch in my phone to know what it is?” It’s star one, two, three pound, which I did. I get a great screen that takes over my whole thing with the menu. I say, “Okay, to know how much you have, I have to type in reply.” So I hit the Reply button that I typed in the number 1, which is . . . and then I get it. And I had to figure it out there no commas in the gigabyte. And then I realized that’s what you’re trying to do.

Abhishek: I mean, this is ridiculous. You know, this is exactly how it looked like in 2004. How is it that 15 years later, we’re having to punch these things when you’re in a world where you could go online, click a button and Uber would return your money, right? You can book an entire apartment for a month, someone else’s apartment for a month by clicking in two places. You could book hotels. Why is it like this? So that’s that transparency I’m talking about. Like in our case, you could get on an app and just click on a place which would say how much data you have left? What happens if you start to run out of that data? If you had taken a SIM card in Singapore and gone overseas, it would say, “You know what? You don’t want to waste money on roaming, do you want to set a limit? Beyond $20 . . . ”

Andrew: “And let me know before.” Got it.

Abhishek: “And let me know before.” So let’s say you land in hypothetically in Thailand with a SIM card from circles in Singapore, it will tell you, “You can make these many minutes of calls without hitting your limit.” Yeah.

Andrew: Okay. Let’s see, where did the idea come from? I’m imagining as I look at this, that you are probably somebody who analyzed the market and said, “I could beat it.” And then were smart enough to say, “But I need a good origin story and so let’s think of a story.” Is that what happened?

Abhishek: No, actually, look, I think if you look at my background, not everything is in my LinkedIn profile, I guess. I’m a very structured thinker. And I try to break problems down in a very methodical way. And my training at Bain Cap definitely trained me to look at the industry from a, you know, pretty, very cold blooded. I could do that. But the actual moment in which I decided something had to be done was I think in late 2013. I remember trying out this new service Uber in Singapore then. And Grab had started in 2012. I remember taking a taxi through those guys because I wanted to get a phone and a phone number. And I was going to a startup store.

And I didn’t know any better because, you know, startup, sure. And I was not happy with how much I was charged. I think he’d taken the wrong route or something had happened. And I remember going on the app and clicking in a place and I said, “I would like to dispute that.” I disputed. I went into the startup store and I saw there’s a long queue and I wanted like a new iPhone. And I was standing there waiting one hour. Within that hour Uber came back and said, “Your $5 is to returned to you.” I’m like, “Wow, that’s great.” And then eventually after dying multiple times, I eventually got to the front of the queue. And I said, “Okay, that’s the iPhone, I want this color. That’s the size.”

And they say, “Oh, you know what? This lady who just was behind you, she’s just taken that last phone. Would you like to come in two days?” And I just remember thinking, “This is just insane. I want to give these guys thousands of dollars. They make me wait in a queue. And guess what? After that I don’t get what I want.” And I was you know leading a busy life as you were saying, really busy. There’s no time. So clearly, if I’m feeling that, a whole bunch of other people must feel that. And then I went about looking at this industry in a very methodical way. That’s how the NPS came out. Looking at the NPS. I looked at the economics of it.

Andrew: And Net Promoter Score.

Abhishek: Net promoter score.

Andrew: You’re looking at their Net Promoter Score.

Abhishek: Yes. Just wanted to see does everyone hate it or is it just me who’s very high strung? Like is the issue with me? Like if everyone else is okay, then you know what? Just suck it up. And just, you know, just live with it, right? So I realized I was not the only one. People just generally hated the telcos. And the other thing that surprised me was telcos made a ton of money. How could you have these two things exist simultaneously, you make a lot of money and everyone hates you. And then as unpeel the onion a little bit on this, you start to realize that telcos have existed and operated in a bad manner simply because they could.

It’s almost like someone has a gun to your head, you will do whatever they tell you to do. And it’s only a question of could you make them more options? Could you make more options available? So the same issue with taxis in Singapore 2012, ’13, you would pay, you’d be standing at the corner waiting for taxis to come for 10 minutes to the guy would just go past you, and wait for you to call it. So it was the same thing. So that’s where it kind of started. And the idea was build something that I would want as a consumer, just as I’m getting better service, and so many other things.

Andrew: So the problem that you had though was wanting to buy a device and you couldn’t buy it.

Abhishek: Device and the service. So actually, the other part of the story is I got in front of the queue, and they had like seven different kind of price plans. And then they had I think five pages of fine text. And I said, “Look, what is buying this plan mean?” They said, “Well, you have to read through this doesn’t happen if you break a contract in 12 months, 18 months.” I said, “How long is the contract?” “Twenty four months.” And I was changing my phone every 12 months.

Andrew: Because? Oh, because you wanted the newest phone, yes.

Abhishek: Yes, right. And then, you know, we’re in a world where people change their boyfriends or girlfriends every six months and you’re asking me to be in a longer relationship than that with a telco which gives me a lousy service? It made zero sense. So anyway, I walked out really unhappy. And just remember meeting my co-founders at that point and saying, “Look, this has to change.”

Andrew: What is your background? I’m trying to see like what did you aspire to be as a kid? You went to . . .

Abhishek: So I’ll tell you what? So I grew up in India till the age of 14, 15. And coming from a middle class family in India, the only dream a 14-year-old had back then was to leave India.

Andrew: Really?

Abhishek: Yes, yes.

Andrew: To go where? Where did you think you would want to go?

Abhishek: So it was just go to the developed world and do something and because, you know, land of opportunity. And it may sound really counterintuitive now now that India is growing at the pace at which it is now. But back in the day, you’re stuck in a country with no opportunities. And the idea was to leave and do something. And I was lucky enough that Singapore government was . . . you know, they sponsored me, my education. And the idea was that I’ll be working here for long, long time to come.

Andrew: How did that work? One of the reasons I’m here is I keep hearing the Singapore government is encouraging entrepreneurship, encouraging people like me to even come here and experience it. What did it mean for you that they were sponsoring you? What were they trying to do? How did it work?

Abhishek: Yeah. So this was after grade 10 and, you know, just 2 years before university. So the idea was, “Come to Singapore. We’ll pay for everything. We’ll make sure you’re studying in the best school that Singapore has.” And Singapore does have some really good schools. You know, PISA scores for education, Singapore’s like ranked number two. Number one behind Israel, by the way. So, yeah.

Andrew: So, wait, one of the things that they do is they say, “Who’s smart in the world? How do we bring them to our university?”

Abhishek: To our pre-university.

Andrew: To the pre-university?

Abhishek: Pre-university and let them spend some time in Singapore. If they love it enough that, they’d want to stay here longer.

Andrew: I’m getting chills. Why is the U.S. not doing that?

Abhishek: I guess they should.

Andrew: Right?

Abhishek: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. And I know they’re not going to. They got this whole other issue going on now with immigration, which means that they’re missing out. So they said you were smart. You applied, is that right?

Abhishek: You got that wrong, but yes. They thought that I was smart.

Andrew: They got their return on their investment. “We’re going to bring you here,” and in return you were going to do what?

Abhishek: Nothing, just be here.

Andrew: Just be here?

Abhishek: “Just be here. We’re going to pay for education. If you want to go overseas for your education after that, we might even sponsor that. And, you know, you’re not obligated to come back to Singapore.” I think there is some obligation but the place is so good that people don’t see it as an obligation.

Andrew: And what is the obligation?

Abhishek: Well, be here for the next . . . if you take the university scholarship, then you have an obligation. If you don’t have the university scholarship, there is no obligation.

Andrew: And what’s the obligation?

Abhishek: You stay for six years after that.

Andrew: Six years? And you weren’t scared of that because you want to get out of India?

Abhishek: Yes. And also you could technically paid off or something like that, which I never wanted to.

Andrew: Is it easier to get out of than a contract with the phone company?

Abhishek: It might be easier.

Andrew: It might be.

Abhishek: It might be easier.

Andrew: Okay, so that’s it. You aspired, you came here, you made a success out of yourself. Parents proud?

Abhishek: Oh, yeah, they were very proud until the day I started and I was very worried with the start of Circles that is. I was very worried because, you know, for middle class family, you have kids now running a fund, you know, private equity professional, you know, you’re sorted monetarily, financially rather. And then, at that point, you say, “You know what? I’m going to keep that on the side. I’m going to start afresh.” And I was really worried that they would not approve, but they were actually hugely supportive. And part of it goes back to my father wanting to try a business many years ago, which didn’t work out for him. So I think there was lots of . . .

Andrew: What’s the business he tried?

Abhishek: He was trying to sell detergent. Not a tech business. It was not a digital tech world.

Andrew: How did he try to sell it?

Abhishek: So that’s the thing, he actually did not have some of the background that I . . .

Andrew: So he wasn’t even able to get started?

Abhishek: He wasn’t. I think he tried selling it to friends, family that worked, and in the end that did not work out. So in some ways, he was very supportive. Look, if you can make it work, that would be great.

Andrew: Okay, so what you did was you had this idea, you went to see the Net Promoter Score. You saw that it was low. You said, “Okay, it’s not just me. It’s other people who don’t like it too.” My sense is the next step then had to, “Could I even create this phone service? Can I go partner with the phone companies?”

Abhishek: Yes. And I would say, it sounded like an insane idea back then. Like just . . .

Andrew: What part sounded insane?

Abhishek: Why would a phone company give you access and . . .

Andrew: It’s called MVNO, Mobile Virtual Network. Virgin for a long time was doing this in the U.S.

Abhishek: Right.

Andrew: So what’s that going on here at the time?

Abhishek: It was and as a model it had failed, and it did not make sense for us to actually launch an MVNO.

Andrew: Why? Why did it fail before and then why . . . ?

Abhishek: And why did the difference?

Andrew: Yeah.

Abhishek: The biggest issue that you’re trying to resolve was great customer experience and the kind of flexibility that you’re looking for that I did not get or being, you know, given 100 kind of plans that I had to choose from. The traditional model of value, the virgin model, if you will, is essentially taking everything that a telco does, take their SIM card, paint over their name and sell it. And all you’re doing over there is a price play. Because all you can really change is existing packages, just change the price. What I wanted to change was the end-to-end experience, how you buy, how you actually when you call customer service, in our case, you should have to call customer service. Just as Uber could pay me back $6 when I wanted them to, it should be possible through the app.

And in order to do all of those things, not just the customer facing layer, which is a website app should be good. How that interacts with underlying technology had to change. Because that underlying technology in the case of telcos was all old school legacy technology. I had to end up building all of those things. And as I built all of those things, we chanced upon the world’s first telco operating system.

So imagine you’re using the smartphone now, which has iOS on it. But before that, you had these not so smart Nokia phones and you couldn’t do too much on it. You continually change them and modify them. And that’s exactly what you try to fix. That’s the experience you wanted. And the existing model did not allow for this kind of change to actually happen for someone to deploy their own technology. And that’s where all of those models failed or are failing around the world. And we wanted to make it completely user driven. Whatever does consumers want, they should be able to modify or change.

Andrew: Give me an example of something that seems like an easy change and makes sense for a customer, but you had to do a lot of work on the backend to make it work.

Abhishek: Let’s say you’re roaming overseas and you are . . . I was giving you this Thailand example. You’re roaming overseas and you have to, you know, set a limit to how much money you want to actually change. You want to limit how much you want to spend. At telco, I would say 90% of the world’s telcos still couldn’t do it.

Andrew: What do you mean?

Abhishek: Because they don’t put a limit specifically for you. Because they will have these set limits. They’ll say, “Okay, above $200, you can set a limit to $200.” But you may have a very different profile. You may be a guy who’s happy to spend 500 or you may be someone who wants to spend . . .

Andrew: Oh, and they don’t. Right.

Abhishek: And they don’t have that flexibility. And they don’t have the flexibility because they don’t control the underlying technology. Because telcos and this will surprise you, telcos historically have been sales and marketing organizations. They have never really been technology organizations. They would usually outsource this technology to the likes of an Amdocs, Accenture, you know, Wipro, Infosys of the world. And hence, to change any such thing, which is too specific requires them to build systems and processes which would take them years and cost them billions of dollars.

Andrew: And they’re not in that space.

Abhishek: They’re not in that space. Correct.

Andrew: They’re not in that software space. And so what you had to do was find a way to keep pinging to see how much data each user used and then decide whether to cut them off or not.

Abhishek: So we felt that’s not the right answer. The right answer is to lead the decision to the customer. Give them the sense of control so you can actually decide.

Andrew: Right. And then you interact with the software.

Abhishek: Yes. And our software automatically, just the moment if you were to say $20 limit, our system will pick it up and talk to our billing system to say the moment he stops at $20, send them him message saying “Would you like to extend the limit?”

Andrew: And so part of what you had to do before you launch was to say, “Can we do all this and examine it?” That’s what it was? “Can we partner with the phone company? Can we do all this software?” Is that right?

Abhishek: Yes. And it felt like an impossible task, quite frankly. But if you look at myself and the other two co-founders, we’ve had to overcome a lot in life in general. Like leaving India, like I was saying, they chose 25 people from all over India to come to Singapore. And similarly, they’ve all had these kind of, you know, overcoming difficulties. And if you look at the difficulties, some of the other entrepreneurs have had to work on, especially in Asia, it is nothing. So we said, “Look, let’s decide where we want to land up. This is where we want to be. This is where the world is at right now. Along the way, as long as you’re making progress, people would love us.” And that’s really where we started. So if you ask me, we’re still not where I would like the world to be.

Andrew: So tell me how your past education and experience in management . . .

Abhishek: Consulting?

Andrew: Consulting, right . . . helped you think through this in a way that a new entrepreneur without that experience wouldn’t have known to think?

Abhishek: So let me start with the education. So I studied Electrical and Electronic Engineering and I specialized in communications, actually. So that was just from a pure technology perspective was very helpful to do. And I love to tinker around with code I had done not too much, but a little bit of software development. So I knew that something was definitely possible just on very basic things. Like even basic things like not having a good website. You don’t have to be a techie to know that if I have to click in 20 places to buy a product means is broken. So just at a very subconscious level, it was very obvious that the thing was broken.

And then as a management consultant or as a private equity investor, I started to look at the economics of the game, if there was some way to make the whole thing automated. Telcos are some of the most people heavy businesses, surprisingly. Uber, I keep going back to Uber all the time. But, you know, some of those, they may have a team of 20, 30 people running a country. Telcos have a minimum of 3,000 people.

Andrew: And where do people go?

Abhishek: So they go into shops, they go into billing, they go into customer service, and they have so many people in customer service because customers are unhappy to begin with.

Andrew: And what you do instead is you have a better app that I can get what I need so I don’t have to make as many phone calls.

Abhishek: That’s right, you don’t actually have to reach out to us because you’re happy to begin with. And that’s where NPS for us, Net Promoter Score, plus 55 is because customers, you see the gulf negative 20 plus 55, that’s where we save on not having so many customer reaching out to us. And when they reach out to us, they do it through the app and they can pre-solve it for themselves. So that’s one area.

The other challenge that telcos face, which is where we end up saving perhaps manpower, when you have 30 different technology systems, built by 10 different vendors for you, the Amdocs, Accentures of the world. They will always end up having some kind of handshakes along the way.

On one hand, you may take outputs of one system, copy it over, take it to the next system and things like that. And every time we require people to do this, because we’ve built up all of the entire system ourselves, we have automated all of those handshakes. And you don’t need people to do that. So hence the number of people we need to run . . .

Andrew: Because the analysis you needed to do before you started the company?

Abhishek: We thought about it conceptually. Because if you think about how some of the other industries have evolved, if you look at people trying to build digital banks, for example, they’ve had to do neobanks, for example, they’ve had to do the exact same thinking.

Andrew: So this is you having to go and understand their system. And so when you understand their system, how do you do? Who do you call?

Abhishek: Right. So I should perhaps share that. So as a private equity investor, I looked at many telcos. I tried to buy some of them. And that’s how I knew that they make so much money. And, you know, when they make that kind of money, and they’re so bad, then, you know, you start to look into how is that possible? Where could I actually save more money? How could you actually get more out of this engine? Yeah.

Andrew: Okay. All right. I checked in with your team. By the way, you’ve got a phenomenal team. They’re on it.

Abhishek: Really?

Andrew: Every detail. Yes. And so I asked someone on your team about what . . . like some interesting stories I want to bring up one, I also looked up some of your promotion, how you got customers, I want to bring up some of that. Let me first talk about my first sponsor, and then we’ll go into your co-founders, which is what Lisa on your team told me, was kind of interesting and I want to hit on that. And then we’ll continue from there.

First sponsor is a company called Toptal. You should know about these guys. One of the things that Toptal did was they said, “You know what, there are a lot of MBAs working for bigger companies.”

Like if you’re a big company and you want to get McKinsey to come in, they’ll send you a team of people from McKinsey. They’ll help reshape your business. I said, “No, not everyone has that.” What we do is we look for people who used to work at McKinsey who want part time work right now to just get their hands dirty with companies to learn about them. Or maybe they’re at the retired stage of their lives. We’ll just have them on our team. And whenever a new company wants to hire McKinsey-level person, they could hire someone who works at McKinsey. You could bring in insights.

And so I did that. I said, “I need somebody to help me understand how my business is working. Give me some insights that I never would have had before.” I hired someone, Jack Baker, he is so good. What we ended up doing with Jack was he looked at my finances, he discovered places where I was making like bad moves financially. He said, “I will understand . . . ” we accept credit cards, “I’ll understand the whole credit card processing contract for you and I’ll show you where you can cut expenses and where you can’t and I’ll explain to you why.” And we ended up cutting by two thirds our credit card processing.

Abhishek: Wow.

Andrew: Yeah. He ended up saying, “Bigger companies have these contest to see who on the team could reduce expenses.” I said, “That’s kind of silly. Should we do how they do it?” I did it. I took out all the SaaS software that we pay money for. I gave it to my team. We had a contest. People started . . . great ideas. Anyone who needs to hire an MBA for stuff like that or because they’re raising money and they need to put together a spreadsheet, they should go to toptal.com/mixergy. Top as in top of your head. Tal as in talent .com/mixergy. When you do, you get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours, 80 hours free in addition to a no trial period. Toptal.com/mixergy. That could be the future of McKinsey. Think about that.

Abhishek: Yeah, I might just check them out. Yeah.

Andrew: Yeah. All right. Let’s talk about how you got your co-founders. Who are the co-founders and how did you get them to leave their big jobs to come work with you?

Abhishek: So I have two co-founders. One of them his name is Rameez Ansar. And he was running his own accelerator, venture accelerator. Before that he was also at a private equity shop. And before that he was also a consultant. He was at Boston Consulting Group. And then he was at Temasek here in Singapore. And he ran his accelerator through his . . . you’re talking about MBAs. Through his HBS MBA he’s still running his accelerator. And we used to discuss the telco model quite a bit, him and I. And we go back like now 15 odd years actually.

Andrew: Because you were looking to buy telcos and what was your interest? You’re just like talking to companies?

Abhishek: Yes. Because we always knew we wanted to start something together very close friends. And we always just think about what you might be able to do. So we’d kick around ideas. We started off with something really basic, like, you know, “Could dry cleaning be better?” And we’re like, “No, look, it’s not big enough. And why would you want to just do a dry cleaning business?” So just used to kick ideas around. And so he was the first person I discussed this with. And I would say just landing on the telco bit happened with all three founders together. So we used to discuss general ideas.

And then my third, second co-founder apart from Rameez is Adeel, Adeel Najam. And he spent a long, long time in telcos. He was at Alcatel-Lucent just serving the telcos. He was a StarHub in Singapore, actually. So I gave a lot of shit for the bad experience I had with StarHub. And, you know, he believed the same thing. And that’s the thing. Even the folks who are in telcos recognize how badly run they are. So anyway . . .

Andrew: What’s the name of the telco that he was with?

Abhishek: StarHub.

Andrew: StarHub, okay. And that’s the one that you’re waiting in line for.

Abhishek: That’s right.

Andrew: Okay, that’s not the one that I have. I forget which one I have. Okay, so three of you were talking it through, okay.

Abhishek: Yes, we were talking this through and we were thinking, “Should we launch a telco?” It sounded really crazy and insane. And we said, “Look, if you have to quit the good jobs or whatever it is we’re doing, it has to be a big dream, it has to be something that’s crazy. What we did not realize back then was that it would be a lot crazier than it turned out to be in the sense that he wanted to launch it for Singapore. But now what you’re doing is you’re launching it around the world. And back then if you knew that that you’d be doing it, I guess you would have attracted maybe five other people to join on day one. So that’s how the three of us got together and discussed.

Andrew: Five because it would have been more exciting?

Abhishek: You mean to . . .

Andrew: Let me come back. I heard you have 5% of the Singapore market now.

Abhishek: That’s right, yeah, 5%.

Andrew: Five percent?

Abhishek: Yes.

Andrew: So 1 out of every 20 people in Singapore who have a phone, a hand phone, as they call it, are with you?

Abhishek: I would put it slightly differently. So I would say one out of three people who buy digital services in Singapore has a phone.

Andrew: What do you mean digital?

Abhishek: So digital customers who are folks who would pay for stuff online, use credit cards, because you’re not selling to the grandmas, you’re not selling to folks who are less than, say, 20 years of age. Because they don’t have credit cards.

Andrew: Because they don’t have to and that’s what you’re thinking of as your digital market.

Abhishek: Right. Right. So 20 to 40, 45 would be the target segment. And within that the folks who actually don’t like going to stores. Of that segment, we are like, you know, good one-third . . .

Andrew: Abhi, here’s what I’m wondering with you, why go the startup route? Why not say you’ve got the background to do acquisitions? Why not say, “Who do we raise money from so we can go buy one of these junky companies and add service to it?” Like the T-Mobile model, right? Where the service stunk, they were third rate, nobody paid attention. But then they added great technology and customer service. Why didn’t you go that route?

Abhishek: Because I think changing these companies is actually a lot harder. It’s like you’re dealing with a company that has 3,000 people. If you want to bring it down to 50 people and we have dedicated Singapore only staff of about 75 to 80 start at 50. It’s a really hard task. You’re essentially saying, it would go back to my consulting roots of going back and getting into these companies, cutting off manpower completely, changing the way the organization thinks. These are not technology companies and they’re not focused on customer experience. They’re focused on locking the customer into two to three-year contracts and getting money out of them.

Andrew: Too much to change.

Abhishek: Too much to change and really not much to really get out of that.

Andrew: How did you get your co-founders to say, “Yes, this is the time. We’re leaving our great jobs?”

Abhishek: Well, I think that’s . . . how did that happen? It didn’t happen in a moment. I would love to say there was this great moment, you know, we were sitting on a hilltop and we came. No, there was nothing like that.

Andrew: Your great line?

Abhishek: No, nothing. Unfortunately, that’s not the sexy part of the story. It happened over a two, three-month period. And that partly goes back to . . . so Adeel actually married, was just about to have a kid. And, you know, one has to think about how this would work. And Rameez was thinking about getting married. And all these factors play into how you actually make some of these decisions. So he slowly thought about, you know, what would allow us to be able to do that? And what if you could raise some money to get started? How much a runway does that give us? It was a little bit measured and thought through. So to your question from before how does my background in management consulting or private equity allow me to make certain decisions? This was perhaps one area. And look, people tell us that entrepreneurs typically don’t make decisions like that. But you know what? That’s how we did at least in our case.

Andrew: How much money did you raise to get started?

Abhishek: We started off with a really small amount money. We started off on like less than a million.

Andrew: Really?

Abhishek: Yeah, we started off.

Andrew: And what did you use the money for?

Abhishek: Firstly, to just get stuff, just to get hold of people. In fact, the very first people personally brought on board was the early developer for Viber. Viber you might recall was a messaging service similar to WhatsApp. The 220 million odd subscribers. And the struggle was you couldn’t get a person from the telco world because they were 10 traditionally, and the software people never had the telco background. So we had to find someone who could actually marry the two and we started looking for folks. And he was in Belarus. And we flew him down from Belarus to say, “Man, this is the next big idea.”

Andrew: So this was you just saying, “Can we assemble the right team?”

Abhishek: Yes.

Andrew: And then did you make a partnership with M1, the telecom company that powers your service?

Abhishek: It took a while actually to make that happen. Because we thought about it for a while because you get only one shot at something like this.

Andrew: Why not try to make that work before hiring?

Abhishek: Because they would not . . . I mean, I would imagine that, you know, a big company like that letting you into their towers and spectrum, you know, giving you access to that would want to see your ability to be able to do that.

Andrew: So you had to show them, “I have the team here. I’ve got the software here. We’ve got everything that we need.” the teams. And that took a million dollars or more?

Abhishek: That took a lot more. Actually so we continue to raise. We did three rounds of fundraising actually before launching in Singapore.

Andrew: How much time and how much money took?

Abhishek: It took us a long time. It took us two and a half years to actually get to our launch in Singapore.

Andrew: Wow. Were you anxious at that time?

Abhishek: Very anxious, very anxious because we had no basis for knowing that our thinking was correct. It was just a concept, right?

Andrew: And there were how many phone companies here? Four?

Abhishek: There were three, yeah.

Andrew: So if one of the three said, “Yes, you are ago,” that’s all you need to do? Convince one of the three.

Abhishek: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. Let’s talk about how you got customers then. How did you get the first batch of customers?

Abhishek: So the first batch of customers, look, no one had launched a telco in Singapore in 15 years. So the moment we launched, there was a lot of PR around that. And, you know, what we realized is customers don’t change the telcos easily. It’s not essential stuff. You can get them to buy a pen, you can get them to buy a T-shirt because you know what? They’re not putting much up in that case, but you change your telco, it doesn’t work then you need to make that critical phone call and that’s it. So we had to catch their attention. And we tried to do a few things. And one of them was . . . the team was pretty crazy. I have to follow [the ad 00:33:45]. And they had some really crazy ideas about how to do this. Said, “All light. Telcos were launching $90 price plans for unlimited data.”

Andrew: $90, okay.

Abhishek: Yeah, I think it was $90. We said, “Look, no one needs unlimited data on a working day. If you’re in the office or you’re at home, you can make do with Wi-Fi. You really need this on a specific day. So here’s what you’re going to do. We’re going to launch something which gives you unlimited data for that one day, and that level of flexibility and control for $3, right? The pricing looks similar. And so in 30 days, you’re doing it for one day worth $3 and you can buy the next day again. [inaudible 00:34:20].”

Andrew: So anytime I need $3 for unlimited data. Got it.

Abhishek: You can go on our app, click a button and you get it.

Andrew: Got it.

Abhishek: And we said, “Look, if you just go and say that people are going to compare to 90, there’s no difference.” So this is a crazy idea that team came up with. We had an ATM, fake ATM in the middle of the city. And we didn’t say anything about Circles.Life. And all you have to do is put $3 into that ATM. So not your card, you put $3 in and you get $50 out. And, look, we didn’t publicize because we didn’t want people to know we’re trying to do this. We wanted it to be organically viral. So put $3 and $50 comes out. And after a while there was a massive crowd, there was six police cars pulling up and, look, this may not be a big deal in the U.S. but in Singapore six police cars do not pull up.

Andrew: No, I don’t see any. I literally have seen only one this whole trip.

Abhishek: Really?

Andrew: Okay, so yeah, I guess it’s the CCTV everywhere keeping an eye on us. So this is the kind of thing you can get away with here or is this like you’re disrupting too much?

Abhishek: So we never plan to disrupt social life in such a big way. We thought there’d be 20 people lining up, we’ll take a bunch of pictures put this stuff on Facebook.

Andrew: It was going to be like an Instagram and Facebook thing?

Abhishek: That’s what we thought, until you’ve tried it the first time we don’t even know what’s going to happen. And then you know with that kind of crowd. Then we waited till the till the next day and said $3 unlimited, $3 goes a long way. And then people connected the dots. And this was like it became relatively big.

Andrew: This is where you guys are really good at. Who on the team is coming up with these ideas?

Abhishek: So we have it in-house. It was a pretty big team of marketing, PR. And, you know, we have Lisa here on the PR team. These guys do a tremendous job. They come up with the craziest ideas. We usually don’t stop them. The only time I worry about being behind bars, I have to really jump in and there and say guys . . .

Andrew: What was the idea that’s so crazy that you have to say, “Guys, let’s cool down?”

Abhishek: Okay, so this is a . . . I wonder if I’ll get flack for saying this. But at one point, the team had this idea, “Let’s get on top of a big building and let’s start by throwing some cash and people gather. And then after a while change it to like throwing SIM cards or something. And, look, it’s not digital, but it’s one of those crazy things that would catch attention.” We were like, “I think that’s going to far.”

Andrew: What do you think would happen? “Oh, actually we’re throwing money.”

Abhishek: Just I’m thinking we’re throwing cash. I mean, we’re very conscious of how we spend money, right? And, you know, you have to be as an entrepreneur.

Andrew: Plus there’s no $1 bill here, you’d have to throw dollar coins and hit them in the head.

Abhishek: That would hurt people.

Andrew: That would not work, yeah. Throwing some coins.

Abhishek: But we had a crazy one for Taiwan. Let me give you that example. So in Taiwan as you know, you know, there’s always a struggle with are we a part of China, are we not and this freedom? And the country is essentially divided between folks who want to be with China and folks who want divided, you know, separate Taiwan. And we had this campaign which talked about freedom. You want freedom and you’re not getting freedom. Those who want freedom, let’s just check this out. And we made a big deal about it. And we didn’t say freedom from what. And we said freedom from telcos because telcos . . . and we released that a little bit later. So just freedom, just gets the attention. People talk about that. And then you say freedom from telcos.

Andrew: So it was bunch of ads that you ran that said we want freedom?

Abhishek: It was a video. It was a video which explained why it all went like that.

Andrew: And where did you put the video?

Abhishek: It was on YouTube and we promoted a little bit in the beginning, but then we wanted to, you know, organically just kind of.

Andrew: And you weren’t afraid of . . . like that’s a big mess to get involved with. You had some huge tensions.

Abhishek: Yes, yes. So there was that. If you go on the YouTube page, you’ll see 4 million people have watched it. As a country of 20 million, so 4 million is a big number. And we have I think one point . . . I think 50% of the people liked it and the other 50% disliked it, which is exactly where we want it to land.

Andrew: In thumbs up, thumbs down, 50/50.

Abhishek: Yes, 50/50 that’s like exactly polarizing.

Andrew: How did you get people to pay attention? I’m guessing you bought some ads to kick things out.

Abhishek: With a thing like that, I think just tends to eventually . . .

Andrew: Because it’s such a tense situation.

Abhishek: So there was another one at Singapore where we would say . . . I think this was about we have to solve the hunger problem. And we had people who look like, you know, they were hungry and saying, you know, “We are hungry,” like yeah, of that sort. And then we said hungry for data. Like it came out a few days later. Sure. It was controversial and sure people were like, “Hey, you’re trivializing a major issue.” But, you know, you have to be a little bit on the edge, but not go completely over.

Andrew: And this is your personality as a company, “We’re going to be edgy. We’re also going to be fun and well designed.”

Abhishek: Yes.

Andrew: That’s it? And so you mentioned Taiwan. How did you know that it was time to leave Singapore? You initially were just going to be in Singapore. How do you know it’s time?

Abhishek: So, you know, this is an interesting . . . we knew I would say one year into our Singapore stint post launching that we were going to have to be an international company. It started to become clear. The more we understood the space, the more it became clear that digital data savvy consumers are similar, if not the same around the world. Twenty years ago, if I told you a middle class person in India looks the same as a middle class person in the U.S., you would have said, “Get out.” But today, if you said a digital savvy customer who uses the same kind of services looks very similar, the screen time how they use that looks very similar to how a digital savvy customer looks in the U.S., you might be very, very close. And as long as those customers exist and they are being served by this clunky telcos, there’s always a way.

Andrew: Okay. And so why did you pick Taiwan? It’s far from here.

Abhishek: It’s far from here. But it’s a market which has the same dynamic as where Singapore was back in 2014, ’15 when you thought about the idea. People are locked into not two-year contracts, people are locked into three-year contracts.

Andrew: Those are the worst. You think you can hold on to a phone for two years if you’re smart and tech savvy but three is painful.

Abhishek: Exactly. So three years, we’ve been locked on three-year contracts. And Taiwan is actually a very digital savvy market. Customers pay a lot of money for data. Customers also enjoy digital services a lot, but not the best innovation gets to Taiwan because anyone who wants to go to Eastern Asia ends up being in China and they just skip over Taiwan. So it was a wide open space . . .

Andrew: And the reason that they avoid Taiwan is they want to work in China. And if they get too . . . right?

Abhishek: Not so much that. It’s more like if an American company has to go through the pains of adjusting to the Chinese audience, why go after 20 million people, I’d rather go for 1 billion customers. And hence they skip over Taiwan. You know, many services arrived in Taiwan much later.

Andrew: Why didn’t you go to China or Hong Kong? What’s the situation in Hong Kong?

Abhishek: So Hong Kong is a market which we have been tracking for some time. And it’s a function of how good a market is and how friendly the telcos are to letting you in? And do they really see the value proposition? So, you know, we’ve been in discussions in all of these markets. At some point in the next two, three years we’ll be launching in both if not more.

Andrew: All right. Let me talk about the second sponsor and then we’ll continue because you went beyond just phone service. I saw that you also do insurance and other things. I want to know how did you figure out what to add? But first, second sponsor is a company called HostGator. Do you remember the first website you ever created? No, maybe you’re not a website creator.

Abhishek: No, no.

Andrew: You’ve never done it? No even as a kid?

Abhishek: No.

Andrew: I forget the first one that I created. I know that one of the ones that I created was I was just going to . . . I was a Dale Carnegie student. I loved the book so much. I knocked on their door. I said, “Can I work for you?” Yeah, it was amazing. And I thought, “Well, let me see if I could get to know people using the new tech, like what’s out there? How about if I could get to 1,000 people on LinkedIn to add me?” And I started and I started blogging about it and was like, “This is my way of talking through like how I get to know people.” And I said, “This is stupid. Counting likes our friends on LinkedIn is a waste.” Deleted it within like, let’s say, five days. That’s the beauty of websites.

You have an idea, you put it out there if within five days you deleted, no loss, no nothing. Then I had another idea, “What if I just interview people and ask them all the questions I’ve been dying to know, like especially people who have done business with over the years?” And that one did so well that it became Mixergy which is why you and I are now here in Singapore having a conversation. So if anyone out there has an idea for any type of website, I want you to go over to hostgator.com. Lisa, is it weird that I’m talking to you right behind the camera. And no one is even watching this. I don’t know why I’m addressing the camera. It probably take some attention off of AB.

If you go to HostGator, you can get unlimited websites like this. All you have to do is pick their middle plan on the hostgator.com/mixergy. They’ll also give you the lowest price that they have anywhere because I know our ad salesman Sachit Gupta said, “If you partner with Andrew, if you’re running an ad, I want your best possible offer. Otherwise, why would anyone use his URL?” So he got it. And if you go to hostgator.com/mixergy, you’ll get that lowest price too. The next thing that I saw was phone protect device insurance, right?

Abhishek: Right.

Andrew: Is that the next big feature?

Abhishek: Well, it’s a feature. It’s one of the many that are coming out. And it goes back to truly understanding the customer. If you see why telcos have historically served customers poorly, it’s because they don’t fully understand customer. And they haven’t bothered to. But in our case, we are able to know everything about the customer down to when they sleep, when are they likely to wake up, which app are they likely to open if you step out of this office and if you were to order between a Grab or Go-Jek. How many times you open Grab versus Go-Jek? I might actually know that.

Andrew: You do know that?

Abhishek: Yes.

Andrew: And what can you do with that?

Abhishek: And let’s also remember we’re in Asia where financial services don’t have the kind of penetration that you might come to Zoom in the U.S. or Europe. And that’s partly because customers don’t have a credit score. They don’t have basic Insurance Services. And people are paying all sorts of . . . you know, they’re paying $2,000 in the U.S. may not mean as much to the person who’s paying $2,000. But in Southeast Asia, if you’re paying $2,000, it might just be your two months’ salary.

Andrew: Pay $2,000 for a phone.

Abhishek: For a phone.

Andrew: A phone is $2,000.

Abhishek: Well, $2,000 is in dollars.

Andrew: So $1,800. Got it. Okay.

Abhishek: Yeah. Right. Right. And so just being able to . . . but the moment you pop your SIM in a phone, the first company that comes to know about it is the phone company is the telco because we are connecting you to the network. So we are the first ones to say, “All right, you got a new phone. Given that there’s no penetration of these kinds of services, you most likely don’t have it insured. And you’ve probably dropped your phone,” like I’ve dropped mine in the last year I think 20 times.

Andrew: Or you might even know if I dropped my phone because if I just put a SIM card in a brand new phone and it’s been like six months since I got the last phone, you know I broke it. Got it. So you’ve got all these signals. And so you’re seeing what? Were you seeing the people drop their phones?

Abhishek: We don’t see that. We don’t see that. But even if you haven’t dropped your phone, people would like to say there’s a natural penetration of insurance as a product. You know, 20% of the people who take insurance in a market like, say, the U.S. or Germany, but in Singapore, the number might be 2% so hence there’s so much more to be done. And why don’t you do it? Because you have to go to a telco, stand in that long queue that I want to avoid. And in our case, you can just go on app, amongst many things, you just click one button, you don’t have to worry about payment right there and then. We have your credit cards . . .

Andrew: It was a natural.

Abhishek: It was a natural.

Andrew: Natural. You knew that other people needed it and you didn’t have it over here, okay.

Abhishek: But there are other kinds of services which may not be so obvious. So for example, if I know what kind of places you hang out, I may say, “This guy likes to go for jazz concerts, like whiskey bars.”

Andrew: Yes. No, that’s absolutely true, both of those, yes.

Abhishek: And you know, I’m creating a persona of you. I’m trying to say I’m trying to understand you. And on that basis, I may say, “Andrew would love to go to this place right behind where he is today. Because he’s just landed in Singapore, he doesn’t know what to do. Or he could bring his friends together to go to this place.”

Andrew: Or you might say, “Andrew always go to this one jazz club. Why don’t we tell him about another jazz club that just paid us to promote to him?”

Abhishek: That would be the easy one which a lot of people would be trying to do. But if I know which apps you’re opening and within those apps let’s just say you’re watching videos off . . . it’s a jazz concert. Then I have a very good sense of you, which goes beyond merely location. So there’s location, usage.

Andrew: Yeah. But so far, we haven’t gotten to the real payoff for all that, right? Because you’ve got a lot of insight and all we’re doing is getting me to another jazz club. There’s more. You can now because you know this stuff about me, you can give me a credit score. If you see that I go to the office, which I do every day, if you see them going there and staying there late every day, I’m probably a good risk. I’m not a flight risk, I’m not a flighty person. And so you could give me a credit score that’s not a credit score. And you’re saying that doesn’t exist here?

Abhishek: Definitely not in Indonesia.

Andrew: Not in Indonesia where you’re going next.

Abhishek: Yeah. In Singapore most people don’t know their credit score. If you go around surveying people and you ask them what the credit score is, they’ll be like, “Well, I don’t know,” right? So credit score is absolutely right.

Andrew: And so you now have all of this. What are you thinking going with this? And I feel like you’re getting nervous because I’m touching on this. Why are you getting nervous for touching on this? This is the part that’s exciting.

Abhishek: That’s really exciting. I guess there’s so much that we done here.

Andrew: And you don’t want to tell us what you’re thinking?

Abhishek: No, I do want to share. So let’s see, you talked about risk. Now, let’s say you’d like to drive, right? And you’re driving, I know, whether you’re speeding or you’re not. And I know which part of the town, you know, what the speed limits are. So the only part that worries me is that so many people are worried about how data is protected and how it’s kept us. And we are very, very conscious of that. So, you know, with great power that we have comes great responsibility, and we’re very conscious of how . . . so that’s the part that makes me nervous because it’s definitely massive opportunity. And I’m talking financial services, I’m talking about content discovery.

So when I was talking about jazz clubs, that’s just a part of the discovery but there’s content discovery, discovery around maybe there are things about you you yourself may not know. And, you know, just us being able to help you down that discovery path is something that you we’re very excited about.

Andrew: I feel like what you’re about to say is we could become the credit service that people count on if they don’t have any credit.

Abhishek: That would be the bare minimum.

Andrew: Minimum.

Abhishek: That would be the bare minimum that would happen.

Andrew: And then beyond that, what are we talking about?

Abhishek: Beyond that . . . I mean, imagine that this becomes the only engine through which you consume your movies, you consume any kind of external services, restaurants . . .

Andrew: Because if you see that I’m spending a lot of time out watching movies, you might offer me a better movie service.

Abhishek: Or I might tell you that this is the one you’re likely to watch, or this is a restaurant you might likely to go. So this becomes your one go-to platform for doing everything digital to begin with, but also physical further down the road because we are the ones who are curating all of this for you.

Andrew: So here’s the thing that I’m seeing. So I don’t know if you know Oliver Tan. He created ViSenze. They’re now embedded in Huawei phones. If you put two fingers on . . . use the photo app, you put two fingers on the screen, it will look at your outfit, or my outfit or whatever you’re pointing out and tell you where you can buy it. It’s amazing. And so before that what he did was he did security company. And he said, “The way that I sold it was I went to companies and I said, “Look, you’re being surveilled. You’re surveilling your business. It makes sense. Why are you not surveilling your computer equipment?”

And that company said, “Oh, yeah, of course, why are we surveilling in our building but not in our software?” And that’s how we sold. And I said culturally, that you can say here, if you said that in the U.S., you’d shocked people. If you said, “Now you can surveil your computer system.” There is no way that they would want anything to do with it, versus, “We’ll protect you from others.” I wonder, culturally, can you over here be open and say, “As a phone service, we have all this data on you. We could provide you services that you didn’t have before.” American companies couldn’t do that. Culturally, they would get in trouble. People don’t trust them. And culturally, people don’t trust anyone looking at their data except you.

Abhishek: Yeah, I guess the challenge for the traditional telcos or the U.S. based companies has been twofold. Firstly, on the telco side, they’ve never had a platform or distribution methodology to actually offer these services. The star one, two, three X that you were talking about earlier, some clunky version of that exists for any of these services, what they call value added services. And people . . .

Andrew: They’ve had it. They had the opportunity. They used to force apps onto Android phones, but their apps were horrible.

Abhishek: Yes.

Andrew: And because they neither didn’t have access to it or their apps were so bad that they couldn’t, they wasted their opportunity.

Abhishek: Yes. And customers never actually took those. And the second is people not having a sense of control on the data. Like with Facebook, we heard about Cambridge Analytica and all that fun stuff that came out. There’s no sense of control on the data. If you give customers control, and that’s where everything has to start from the customer and being able to say, “How do we make them really happy?” And then, you know, that means control. They may say, “Never offer me anything and delete my data right after you bill me because I need the data to bill you. So I bill you but after that delete it.” No.

Andrew: You can give them that kind of control?

Abhishek: Yeah, absolutely.

Andrew: I’m so freaking excited about your business all of a sudden. All right. So you’re here in Singapore. Taiwan was next, then Australia, then Indonesia?

Abhishek: That’s right. Taiwan in fact launched this Monday. It’s gone pretty crazy. I think a lot of people are just lining up to buy services. So that’s happening. We’ve had more than . . . in Indonesia, that’s the other place where people are waiting for us. We have more than one million people on waitlist in Indonesia.

Andrew: How did you get a million people already to be interested?

Abhishek: Because we shared, you know, what we’re going to launch, what the service might look like. And a lot of people left the emails, their phone numbers to say, “Look, you know, we’d love to have that service.” It’s something that takes effort, not like a Facebook Connect, you click here and, you know, connect to Facebook, something people have to type in.

Andrew: So you’re going to all these different. The thing that researching you has helped me understand is Indonesia has somewhere around 47% phone penetration.

Abhishek: Smartphone penetration.

Andrew: Smartphone penetration, right? So you’re thinking, “As they come online, why would they go for these boring old companies that don’t understand them?” They’re going to want this new experience that is what they’re looking for. What’s taking them so long? I thought that everyone had phones at this point.

Abhishek: So, look, their phone penetration itself is probably 100%. If you look at the big cities, smartphone penetration maybe more like 75%, 80%. But the moment you step out of these big cities and you go into the second, third, fourth tier cities, you’ll see a lot of these phones which you’ll now recognize built by some local developer based on some version of Android, which no longer support it but the phone is really cheap. It costs maybe $50, $70. The hardware is weak, so weak that you may not be able to run more than five apps on it. So there’s a whole bunch of gray between the 50% odd of smartphones and the remaining the true smartphones may not be your full 50% but true, yeah.

Andrew: I think I told you I went running through Indonesia, I did a marathon. This tour guy who helped me find the spot, he’s a 20-year-old college student studying engineering. I said, “So we’ll WhatsApp each other?” He held out his phone and said, “I can’t WhatsApp on this.”

Abhishek: No.

Andrew: Yeah. Twenty-year-old guy. He’s in love with his girlfriend. He can’t talk to her on his phone doing video on WhatsApp because he’s got one of these dumb phones because that’s just the way it is. I didn’t recognize that this was . . . are you guys thinking Mongolia? No. They’re too tiny. Three million people I think in the whole country.

Abhishek: Look, power to consumers everywhere, right? So you might do that.

Andrew: Wow. Okay, let me get to know you a little bit in the in the final minutes of our time together. I asked my assistant, “Find something about him.” Here’s what she found that was interesting that’s not what I was looking for.

Abhishek: Okay, I’m worried now.

Andrew: She said that you liked to wake up really early to do your thinking work. How early do you wake up?

Abhishek: So I try to wake up by 5:30.

Andrew: 5:30?

Abhishek: Yeah. I try to wake up by 5:30. And between 6:00 to 7:30 or so I try to think more about how I’m going to run the day, how I’m going to think about the next one week, next one month.

Andrew: How do you do that? You journal it?

Abhishek: Yes. I try do that, yes. The starting point is just writing . . . so on a daily basis I don’t do this. Once a week when I wake up really early on this on a Saturday, I would write down everything that’s on my mind. Let’s just say this conversation that we’re having. There might be five ideas that have come to my mind now, I would write everything under the sun and keep writing until I’m tired, like 7, 10 pages of that.

Andrew: For an hour?

Abhishek: For more than an hour or something.

Andrew: Just sit and do that.

Abhishek: To just write, write, write. It’s like a brain dump. And then I feel like I’m at peace. When everything is out, I’m not anxious anymore. I’m not worried. And then I actually try to structure that into major buckets. What is something that needs to happen based on the impact it may have based on how urgently it’s needed? And then and sometimes I would send some of these ideas to my team members, to my co-founders to say, “Guys, what do you think about this? What do you think about that?” A random thought occurred to me, “What if one day we were to go by AT&T, how much should we pay for it?”

Andrew: That would come to your mind?”

Abhishek: Oh, totally. Why wouldn’t it? I mean, absolutely.

Andrew: And it’s, “What will we pay for it?” It’s not like, “What’s the market cap?” You want to understand how much would we . . . how do you think about it?

Abhishek: Let’s just say if you do believe that we can provide better service to customers everywhere, wouldn’t the right idea be going buy an AT&T? But clearly not an idea for the next one week, maybe three years down the road.

Andrew: But it’s a thought exercise that helps shape your vision of the company?

Abhishek: Correct. And the overall strategy for the business. It helps me think about what kind of people am I going to hire? What kind of people might be good as advisors for me? How am I going to position the technology stack to be able to do that three years, five years down the road? And it may not be that path, maybe the pathway is to become the super app that you might see with WhatsApp or not WhatsApp actually. WeChat has become in China, we may want to do that. That’s a very different direction.

Andrew: Got it. So you might sit down and say, “There is no WeChat here that unifies this whole area of the world. What if we do that?” It’s that kind of exercise that you’ll come up with?

Abhishek: Yeah. And so that does that 50,000 feet kind of thinking, and then you try to operationalize some of that. And sometimes when you’re not so confident about an idea, you show it to the team and say, “Hey, what do you think?” And, you know, sometimes people jump all over it and say, “Abhishek, you got to stop doing that.” Which is totally fine. But that way, we remain at the edge of innovation.

Andrew: Were you using Slack to communicate with them like this or something else?

Abhishek: So Slack for more running projects. But something that requires this general thinking and, you know, brainstorming sometimes and we call it separate session where, you know, people have done their own thinking, just encourage people to think together.

Andrew: And like a person [complicate it 00:56:00].

Abhishek: Right. And sometimes you’ve done like hackathons within the company where people just really think and try to make an idea work. That’s the other thing we try to do.

Andrew: So I’m not just blowing smoke here when I say your people are really on it. What do you do to get people to be this on it? I mean, I got a phone call . . . who was it who called me last night?

Woman: Mara.

Andrew: Mara? Mara called me last night because Lisa WhatsApped me and she couldn’t get a response. Mara had my phone number. In the U.S., I accidentally left the plus one off my number, she figured it out, she got me. The level of detail and caring about you to make sure that we’re not wasting time, to make sure that I feel also cared about is impressive. I want to know . . . let’s close it out with what do you do to hire and to make sure that people have this kind of . . . they create this kind of experience in everything?

Abhishek: So one of the missions of the company is to make it a great place to work and grow. And the idea was to build a company where we would want to work if we were not founders, okay? And we always struggled with this sometimes. You know, you’d go to work where you’re getting intellectually stimulated, but how about a place where people are naturally driven to do what they feel they can contribute the best towards? And that’s what you always strive to do. And it shows up in little, little ways. Like we have programs whereby if you all perform, you may, for example, be called a space explorer. And with that specific explorer, you get, you know, extra ethos, which is way more than any kind of salary. And you couldn’t buy that.

Or creating an experience whereby, you know, if you’re driven for towards what you want to do, it doesn’t matter whether you work in operations, but you might design a website, for example, you do that as a part of the hackathon. And if it ends up winning, it’s a top three or top five winner, you can change your department if you have to. If you’re really passionate about being in Australia and, you know, your boyfriend is from Australia . . . this is a real story, by the way, and you feel like you can over deliver and that’ll make you happy, let’s make that happen for.

Andrew: You mean get you to Australia?

Abhishek: Get you to Australia.

Andrew: And let’s work from there.

Abhishek: Just work from there, just be in Australia. So that’s one aspect of it motivating. The second is just constantly we believe in learning every day as founders. So this whole exercise, I was talking about writing everything down, it’s in a way an exercise for me to learn about myself about how to run the company. And we try to encourage that. And when people see that leaders themselves are constantly trying to learn, it’s a value that you don’t have to talk about it.

Andrew: You see it.

Abhishek: You show that. It’s seen.

Andrew: And one way you learn about yourself is by journaling every day and writing it out and then . . .

Abhishek: And just exploring those ideas and then actually . . . so along the way, I might realize . . . for example, two years ago, I landed on . . . I think it was three years ago. Yeah, it was three years ago, I felt like I was being very inefficient with my time. And that’s when I started to say, “How do people do that?” And I discussed that with my team to say, “What would allow me to do that?” And then they give ideas. I’ve tried to incorporate that. And when they see that the leader themselves is like . . .

Andrew: “How do I be better?” Right.

Abhishek: Right. And sometimes I’d be really bad at doing certain things. Or I may run a meeting and I’ve been running a 20,000 kilometers an hour and the team is not with me, I’ll pull a few people aside and say, “I don’t think I did well in this meeting. How do you think I can improve?” And that people say . . . they can see that I’m generally trying to be better. And just for the sake of being better. Not because, you know, it’s going to result in an extra million dollar revenue or something, just because it’s a duty I have towards my staff and towards myself.

Andrew: And it creates an environment where you can then help them be better and it’s not offensive.

Abhishek: You’re not dragging them along. They’re running towards their own development.

Andrew: I’m so freaking excited about talking to you. I don’t know what it is. I like the energy of this. I like the way you’re thinking so big. I like how you’re touching on a problem that it’s pissing all of us off. All right.

Abhishek: No, likewise. It’s a great conversation. Thank you very much for having me. This is awesome. And, look, we covered so much ground. We’d love to continue this discussion.

Andrew: I’d love to do it again. The company name is Circle.Life. I went to read on your website. Why is it called Circle.Life? And it was like even the witty response was, “So every time you write it you got a hyperlink that comes back to our website.” All right. Great. So that’s what it is. It’s Circles.Life, right?

Abhishek: Yes.

Andrew: And I want to thank the two sponsors made this interview happen. The first will host your website right, bring whatever idea you have to them. It’s called HostGator. Check them out at hostgator.com/mixergy. And the second, if you’re looking to hire somebody, like I did with Jack or even a developer, go to toptal.com/mixergy. I’m loving Singapore. Loving talking to you.

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