Competition has now gotten stiffer with TPG Telecom launching its postpaid plans on 31 March. Subscribers can get 50GB of data for S$10 (US$6.99) a month, pushing the notion of cheap data and a price war even further.
In all this, the Circles-M1 tie-up, stuck at no. 3, is doing little to change the Singapore telco landscape. In fact, M1 has taken on another MVNO, Geenet Mobile, on its network after holding off for four years.
Going round in Circles
Singapore wasn’t the only market Circles wanted to capture though. And in that ambition, Circles went further than it could afford to.
Circles raised an undisclosed Series C funding round in February 2019, led by venture capital firm Sequoia India. Armed with these funds, the company was ready to make big investments. More than $50 million for each new market launch, as well as $25 million into Circles-X, its proprietary software platform. It went to Taiwan and Australia, with the promise of three more markets in the future. It is currently preparing to launch services in Indonesia.
The MVNO also put S$25 million down for the Bengaluru centre.
Taiwan and Australia are local moves. The combined market—with 29.3 million and 28.3 million mobile phone subscribers, respectively, as of 2018—dwarfs Singapore’s 8.6 million, whilst retaining similar consumer dynamics.
“Circles.life has carefully chosen these markets where individuals are more comfortable transacting online and rely on digital means more than the physical means,” said IDC’s Batra. “It falls in line with [its] strategy to have a lean footprint and operational costs by not having stores, etc.”
Taiwan looked like a smart choice—Circles claimed in a press release that over 84% of Taiwanese are online shoppers and 64% of them prefer to shop on their mobile devices. Over 80% of Circles’ users signed up via the MVNO’s website at launch and, publicly, it looked like a success.
However, behind the scenes, Circles was hamstrung by its partner in the region, Chunghwa Telecom, and had little leeway with regulations, according to the previously mentioned person. “It couldn’t do promos, or price changes, basically couldn’t do anything. For Taiwan, it underestimated the customer’s behaviour and the partner,” the person added.
Circles offered the same old promos and features in Taiwan as it had in Singapore—cheaper data, no lock-ins—but it was no first-mover in the region. Line Mobile and Ibon Mobile were already established players in Taiwan.
Eventually, the axe fell on its near-50-strong Taiwan team. While reports of layoffs only came out in February 2020, the same person quoted above revealed they’d started in September 2019. First, the operations and customer service people were let go, a second batch was fired just a month later, and a third batch was laid off in February. Even the general manager of Circles’ Taiwan operations wasn’t spared, with a replacement hired soon after.
In Australia, it was a problem of plenty—this is a market with 22 other MVNOs. And when the promos stopped, customers left as well, said the person. “They didn’t have anything unique to offer.”