Customers in Australia also complained about the service—from double billing to slow speeds. Bad reviews on product sites significantly outnumbered the good. Tellingly, the source also revealed that subscriber numbers are low in Australia—there were just 25 customer activations in February 2020. Although numbers are said to be picking up, today, only three people are left from a team that was 25-strong—a marketing person, sent from Singapore; a single customer service representative; and the former general manager of Australia, who is now working on ad-hoc projects.
Ironically, Circles’ lack of a physical footprint—something it has long considered an advantage—may have hurt its overseas ventures. “Not having stores sometimes hurt its credibility and subscribers are not confident about the kind of service it can offer. [This can] Often result in slower growth in markets, or it will have to roll out aggressive promos like it did in Australia, with its four-month free offering,” said Batra. Circles doesn’t even sell its SIM cards at stores.
Circles’ Bengaluru centre, too, saw a similar fate.
Cuts and bruises
Bengaluru, which was supposed to be a centre to develop applications outside the telco business, saw a hiring surge in May 2019. “But over months, that really did not take off, I guess, and the office sort of became a back office for their Singapore operations,” said a former employee, who was laid off from the Bengaluru centre..
There was a management struggle, where local executives had no real power, said the person quoted earlier. Singapore was pulling the strings. Things started going downhill when Dhanush Hetti, the new chief technology officer, came onboard. The management made employees work extra hours despite knowing that these employees were not going to be part of Circles’ future plans, the person added.
The layoffs started all of a sudden in November 2019. “Before Diwali, there was a performance review, which was weird because we had one a few months back,” said the former employee. “They gave us more work during the process; we thought it was performance evaluation, but in fact, it was just extra work.”
A list of people were fired, purportedly over performance, the source said. While three employees still work out of Bengaluru, it’s all a charade to show that the centre is not completely shut, the former employee claimed.
Even in Singapore, its best performing market, employees were not spared.
While the company was on its expansion spree, Circles had also entered new sectors in Singapore, eventually getting trapped in its own concentric circles.
It launched its event discovery platform, Discover, in November 2018. The platform was the MVNO’s digital shot at moving beyond telephony, with artificial intelligence learning a user’s preference and recommending events they would be interested in. The plan was to eventually offer tickets that could be purchased directly on the app.
The MVNO was also attempting credit and a rewards programme—Rides for Rewards, which was linked to the commuter payment system, EZ-Link. The programme offered points for every ride taken which could then be redeemed for rewards. Circles was also looking into building an e-wallet and issuing its own card for use, the person noted.