The MVNO has also been consistently loss-making since its inception. According to company filings, between May-Dec 2017, Circles reported a loss of S$5.6 million (US$3.91 million), which widened to S$8.6 million (US$6.1 million) for the year ended Dec 2018. These heavy losses come despite revenues of S$68.5 million (US$47.9 million) for 2018 and S$31.9 million (US$22.3 million) for 2017.
Circles did not report its financials for 2019 at the time of publishing. It also declined to participate in this story.
It’s the worst time to be flailing. There’s competition rising all over—more MVNOs are in the market, while incumbent telcos are employing new tactics like cheaper data, data rollovers and no lock-ins. From changing the rules of the game, Circles is now playing catch up. While marketing has been the company’s strong suit, its out-of-the-box marketing stunts can only take it so far.
Once positioned to upend the telco market, Singapore’s biggest MVNO is now performing a high-wire act.
Old tricks, new game
Singapore is an outlier in the Southeast Asian region, with mobile penetration above 100%. This makes it a potentially lucrative market for mobile operators. In fact, new telco entrant TPG Telecom wanted to use Singapore as a testbed for its Australian operations, as we previously reported.
Circles’ ploy for a Singapore takeover was simple. Cheap data.
The first plan launched by Circles gave customers 3GB of data for S$28 (US$19.57) a month. In comparison, Singtel was offering 3GB for S$62.90 (US$43.96) a month back in 2016.
Soon enough, almost all incumbents started offering more data as an add-on to current plans. For instance, Singtel offered subscribers twice their current free data allocation for an extra S$5.90 (US$4.12) a month.
Before long, telcos were eschewing one of their biggest customer draws—handset subsidies to offer SIM-only plans. Handset subsidies come with a 12-month or 24-month contract for a cheaper upfront cost for a smartphone. Termination of the contract early would result in financial penalties, incentivising subscribers to renew contracts for newer phones.
Things got worse as features that Circles introduced in 2016 became standard across the telco industry. Prices plummeted as telcos raced to match each other’s SIM-only plans and features.
In June 2019, the scales tipped. Telcos announced monthly excess data rollover and, suddenly, Circles found itself following suit, instead of leading from the front.
Circles’ troubles come at a time when it’s surrounded by MVNOs in Singapore. Nine—Zero1, RedOne, VivoBee, MyRepublic, GridMobile, ViviFi, Geenet Mobile, CMLink SG—excluding the now-defunct Zero SG, which lasted all of two years.
A person familiar with Circles noted that it had an easy model to copy. As telcos got involved, it became a price war. “Circles’ unique sales proposition was giving power back to the customers, which, customers say, is true,” said the person. This meant understanding customer demand and delivering. For instance, Circles had a WhatsApp and instant messaging add-on to its data pack. This meant customers could use WhatsApp without exhausting their data.