Cloudflare TV

How I Launched This Company

Presented by Aliza Knox, Rameez Ansar
Originally aired on 

How I Launched This Company explores the path of entrepreneurs and innovators in the Asia-Pacific region. From challenges faced to lessons learned, we will join them on their journey as they share how they got to where they are today.

Join us this week as we meet with Rameez Ansar, Co-founder of Circles.Life.


Transcript (Beta)

Hi, everybody. Welcome to How I Launched This Company. I'm Aliza Knox, head of APAC at Cloudflare.

And today we are meeting with Rameez Ansar, who is one of the co -founders of Circles Life.

And before we get started, it would be great, Rameez, if you can just tell us, for those who don't know, I know a lot of our viewers in Singapore, Australia and Taiwan will know, but what is Circles Life?

Great. Hi, Aliza.

And first of all, good to be on this. I've heard great things about this session, so I was looking forward to it.

Let me start with just explaining what we do.

So Circles Life is a passion project that started out about six to eight years ago.

And it really started with this idea that, you know, if you could imagine an industry that touches everyone in the world, right?

And, you know, if you think about it, like very few industries touch people the way a telecom or a mobile company does.

Everyone needs to have it. Everyone has a primary number. And it comes from the idea that, you know, for a company where you do pay monthly on a regular basis, how could the customer experience be so bad?

How could talking to their customer service people be so bad?

How could buying that service put you in a queue for so long and, you know, have to talk about 10, 20 things that need to be done?

In this Internet world where we're living in, this should have been the other way around.

For a company that touches everyone where you pay every month, it should have been easy.

And that was really the start of this company, where we said that, look, we have to take this, you know, premium customer experience, the Internet world of things to the most pervasive industry in the world, which is the telecom industry.

And then when we set on that vision, we realized actually that to be a telco company in this new world, there is no vendor out there that does it perfectly.

So you can have the vision, but to bring the vision to life, we had to build it ourselves.

So over time, what we've done is actually built the technology that allows you to deliver the best customer experience in building a mobile company, a cellular service, where you can now go online, get your service, get your number, port it over in two minutes, literally, and either over an eSIM gets activated instantly or gets delivered the same day.

And where you can see simple, clean billing, no funny messages, no funny charges.

And then you can get the greatest customer experience by the click of a button.

You can talk to someone real in 30 seconds and get your problems resolved.

So with that vision, we launched something about three and a half, three plus years ago in Singapore.

We've now expanded it into Taiwan and Australia.

We're looking to expand further. But what we're really trying to do is say, actually, the future of the telco industry should look very different.

It should be the most customer obsessed company because it serves the most basic needs you have.

So you keep saying we, who is we? And I know you have some co-founders.

So it sounds like there was a group of you. I don't know if it's two or 20.

Tell us more. Yes. So with all crazy ambitions, with all things, you need a few, few nice people because one person may, it may be too much for one person is what I believe, but we are a team of three co-founders.

And we came together under this idea because we kept talking about how ridiculous this whole point was.

And, you know, frankly, for me, for example, I've had a background in consulting in private equity and eventually in investing early stage companies.

And I've always been fascinated by this industry all the way back to, you know, when I was much earlier, when phones first came out, I couldn't afford one.

So I had to ask my long distant uncle if I could use one. And I was like, this is a fascinating and innovative industry.

I think it'll go really far.

And eventually it didn't. Right. So we're trying to here to fix it. So then I have two other co-founders.

One is, has a similar background from consulting and private equity, but he's also looked at the telco industry from an investment perspective by understanding that how much money gets made and why is it the service innovation level is still too low.

Both of us didn't have much, his name is Abhi and both of us didn't have much to do with the industry, frankly.

And so there's a third co-founder who actually had something to do with industry, who actually knew it enough that he could talk and bring credibility to this group.

And his name is Adil.

And, but he didn't, he wasn't in it for long enough that he could be corrupted by it.

So he was in the right balance. So that's why this group of three people got together and really put out a grand vision where, you know, we almost like, despite our experiences and despite, you know, networks, I think we heard more notes that, you know, I had planned for, and we still keep hearing some notes now, but it's been a great journey.

But those are the three people we built it together. And now we're lucky to have a great team of about 500 people with a great leadership team that is actually putting this onto the map.

So how did the three of you find each other?

Were you friends prior to this, or you went out in the VC community, sort of looking for people who are interested in doing something similar?

So in our case, so two of us know each other from the past and, you know, because we've kind of followed each other's career, similar careers, met, interestingly, I met Abhi at a, first time I met him was at a career, you know, they have the assessment centers, it's for one of the banks, but they had a full day assessment center.

And I was there and he was there a candidate as well. So we got together and, you know, both of us didn't get into that bank anyway, maybe good, good for us.

And then we sort of carried our story forward. And each one of us obviously talked about what it would be like to build a company.

But I think the idea of building a company to us came first.

And what came a little second, because we actually just look to our own inspirations in life, right?

Where do we get most frustrated?

Where do we get more inspired in terms of like, you know, working on a big problem to solve that people think it's completely difficult.

And then eventually, you know, the third partner was, okay, now we need some credibility.

Because if you just go out there and, you know, because telco industry is a mammoth industry, and it has regulatory frameworks to be understood, it has the industry that is quite complicated and deep.

So then we found out, you know, okay, that's the third guy we need for credibility.

And luckily, in my past life, I relied on a lot of experts in the industry.

And you know, he was one of them.

And before I'm going to ask you some questions about how you divide up the work as well, because I think we're all interested in that.

But before we do that, you mentioned a little bit about each of your backgrounds.

But since you're on the show, can you tell us specifically what you did?

You said consulting and private equity.

How does one get to this stage of being feeling confident to be an entrepreneur?

Yeah, I think the quick answer to that question is you never are. And even if you're never confident, never, never confident.

Thanks for that clarification.

But you're never really confident. And I think if you're really, I mean, and you get, of course, you have to be very confident when you talk about it to everyone else in the team.

And but I think the reality is that if you don't have a, if you don't have a real sense of doubt about whether this is the right thing or not, then you're not doing anything interesting.

Right? You're not shooting far enough.

And I can't remember any point in time that I was fully confident in what I was doing.

But I was sure of what I wanted to do. And I had conviction that this is the right direction.

But that's different than being sure of what the right thing is and confidence.

So confidence versus conviction is the point that I'd like to make.

And so I worked, I mean, I guess one of the one of the reasons I'm probably doing this is I've always had some fascination with, you know, building things, trying to do something probably goes back way, way early into my teenage years.

But I think my first experience also right off the bat was actually with a startup company, which gave me a little bit of color of how exciting it could be.

It was a very well-funded company in those days.

And it had a space in the U S actually, and it had raised about $10 million.

And I was like the seventh or eighth employee. And it was quite fascinating because, you know, I, and it's not like, you know, the company eventually used up all the money, couldn't raise more.

And actually after a year and a half of experience, everyone went to work for great places.

But the idea was that really for the first time ingrained a sense of, Oh, this is interesting.

You know, everyone is great here.

Everyone works for a cause, a purpose and people do great things.

So eventually that probably left a seed in me. But then I joined BCG, Subhasan Consulting Group, where I probably, whereas my parents would like to say, I got a real job that I paid money and had a potential for, for something great.

So I disappointed them fairly quickly because I left after three years, three years, something, and I joined Tomasic Holdings.

And then eventually post Tomasic Holdings, again, that was a, for me, a path I took to really get rooted in Singapore and understand what it takes to build a business around here.

And eventually then moving on to, you know, invest in early stage companies.

So again, I was slowly coming to my own because then, you know, from consulting to investing in large companies to investing in smaller companies, it really gave me a long ramp up to then finally starting my own.

But I can tell you that the day I did is the only day I realized what it takes.

So if I had one message to anyone that you can never have enough ramp up or training to be a startup entrepreneur, you just have to do it.

And then you have to roll with it and figure out what it is. So I may have taken a very thoughtful, deliberate path, but I might as well have just jumped.

So, well, it's interesting how you got there and you must, do you think there are some skills or competencies you brought from that, those past jobs that made it less like just jumping because you actually brought some things with you?

Yeah, I think, so the answer is yes. And I think, and there are two ways to, two sort of buckets of things here, right?

The first one is, I think you just make less mistakes and at least, you know, when you're about to make a mistake.

And what I would say is that's just, when you have made many mistakes, you learn to know when a mistake is about to come.

And I think that's just from a sheer number of experiences you've had.

And I think, for example, consulting and both private equity are the kind of experiences that train you in just experiences.

They give you a lot of exposure to different industries.

You have to come up to speed very quickly.

It doesn't matter if it's, you know, marketing problem or an operations problem.

It doesn't matter if it's an industry that's telco or non -telco.

So to be able to have a view, to be able to have a view what the world looks like, and to be able to say, this is the problem that we're here to solve, and what could be the paths to problem solving, and to know that you're in the wrong path, the right path, I think that comes from experience.

And I think consulting and private equity provide you the best learning, fast learning, I would say, in order to get there.

So I think you reduce the chances of making mistakes, but the fact is, on the other side, I think in a startup world, it's almost like some of those things that you expect to see in larger companies don't work.

Like, for example, the biggest problem for smaller companies is sometimes you just can't even hire the people you want to hire.

Forget about getting A-class talent. Like you say, everyone should get, you know, A -team, A-team.

Well, you can't afford to hire the A-team.

Because the first thing you have to learn is to be a salesman so that you can actually hire the people.

And then, you know, they should be naive enough to take the bet.

So it's a balance. So that naive part is something that, you know, you need to be a little bit naive.

So in fact, you need to be early in your life, so you're naive enough to convince other people also to be naive enough to join you.

Or get too analytical. Optimistic, brave. Okay. And talk to me about running it with, so I've had a few founders on, and some have founded by themselves.

You've got three partners, which is not something I talked about before online.

So can you tell me how you guys share the work and how you make decisions?

Sometimes it seems like it might be easier because you've got more input, but then it might be harder.

I guess you can vote. The good thing about three versus two is you can outvote somebody.

I don't know. How do you do it? So I think it's a philosophy.

First of all, I would like to say that it's a philosophical choice.

And it's a choice, right? I think building a company yourself as a choice and building it with people is a choice.

And my choice is influenced by a couple of things that I've seen.

And in fact, there's like a Y Combinator research that's quite detailed that talks about the success of building companies with two co -founders is actually the highest.

Two to three. And they also talk about three. Yes.

In total or with two others? You mean three? No, no. In total, two co-founders. So third one, it peaks at somewhere around two.

The probability of a successful startup is definitely higher when it's more than one.

It's two. And of course, they're between two and three.

There's not much difference. So we're at three. It just happens to be.

But I do believe that I think for me, the fundamental choice is are you going to build it yourself by yourself?

Or are you going to build it with the team?

And I've had this view is like the greater the problem in the world, the greater that I want to solve it.

But for that reason, you're just never going to be enough.

Like I think you will increase your odds of solving the greatest problem in the world if you take a team to it.

And I mean it at every level. Right. So even at the founder level, like if you can get three founder level people, well, that's great because they're going to attack the problem in three X or whatever I could do alone.

It is a philosophical view, but it's also a little bit about success and what causes success in startups, because the day to day, you know, I could have my own up and down.

But if you're three people at any point in time, you're averaging out.

So all three people have to be feeling really shitty at the same point in time for the whole vibe of the company to be shitty.

And that's a big one.

It's a big one, actually, because there's a system for support and there's a system for adjustment, because not everyone can, you know, maintain the perfect positivity and master and everything to greatness every day.

And that means, you know, just the company has a better outlook on life and positive and a more ambitious outlook to the company all the time.

But coming back to also how we make decisions, I think that's just once you believe what's the right philosophical approach to building a company.

And again, I'm influenced also by the fact that I worked in consulting where it was a very partnership driven approach.

And I think a couple of those influences have come together with me.

But I think once you agree that this is the right view of building a company or that's the way you want to build a company, then I think how you distribute roles is more mechanical.

It's more tactical for me. I think there are systems and we've iterated on that.

It's not like I could tell you this was the question we had and we had the perfect answer.

I think we've learned and we, in fact, we learned every six months we tweak something in the system to get there.

But I think in a startup world, as you said, it can't be about voting and it cannot be about full consensus either.

It has to be somewhere in the middle where you, for example, one rule we follow is whatever our are very well defined.

But then at the end of the day, the person who's actually leading a business has to make the call on that particular topic.

So let's say somebody is in fundraising, right?

Somebody is looking at fundraising between the three of us.

That person has to make the final call because they're the ones in charge.

And I think usually I've found whether it's at a founder level or any level that leads to better outcomes.

And the most important thing is to build a culture and that psychological safety, even when the founders that we can just say, look, I know you're going to make the final call, but I want you to hear me out.

And I say, look, these are the worries that I have about this choice we're making.

And we should just be clear that once we make this choice, what could it mean?

And if we're clear about that, I'm sure we're all in it together. We'll make the right choice.

In fact, a better choice. So how do the three of you define your roles?

For example, you said, or there might be somebody in charge of fundraising.

And I imagine there might be in charge of go to market or in charge of building the systems that you use.

So how have the three of you divided it if that's not secret?

No, no. It's a public secret. Okay. We like public secrets. No, no, no. That's fine.

So for example, one of my co -founders, he looks at, and it's interesting.

So there are many ways to divide. And I guess we've thought about, this is the current iteration of our division.

And we like it because we divided into the themes of the future of what we're trying to do.

So we're working on growth, for example, growth is what we are in multiple markets.

So we have a current position in multiple markets in the sort of model we have, which is business to business, a business to consumer.

And we're going out there and we're actually making in a consumer market for consumers.

And we have three markets. So we call that growth.

Whatever we do in these markets, or we grow in a similar market in these growths, I look at an overall basis, right?

So what that means is all those 10X moves that we're doing along the way, I continue to look at that.

And that involves looking at product marketing.

And of course, it ends up being everything, right?

Whatever you need to take to execute some of these things. Then the other co-founder, and this is a broad sort of focus area.

And then the other co -founder looks at everything that structurally can change the company.

For example, we define it as not fundraising alone.

It could be acquisitions. It could be more interesting joint ventures in different markets to protect our future.

It could be actually changing the business model to make it into more business to business.

We're looking at, you know, we get a lot of inbound around with companies, telco companies, like, hey, can we just take your machine and do it ourselves?

So we're looking at that kind of stuff. So how do we structurally change our offering to create new business units or new business opportunities, or to even do M&A or to raise funds to rapidly change the trajectory of our company?

And then the third co-founder broadly looks at how do we make sure we keep our operations running, which includes some of the people stuff, but also just the business running.

There's a ton of operations and customer support and happiness stuff and regulatory requirements that need to get full to sort of keep.

So it's almost like three modes, and it's a very interesting division.

It's not across functions. It's actually across what it takes to succeed for us in the business.

That is interesting. How long were you guys working before you were able to launch your first market?

Oh, that was the toughest time.

Because you just mentioned regulatory and obviously telco is highly regulated.

So I was thinking it might have been quite some time. Yeah. So this is very different from like a traditional startup because, you know, you kind of just launch in the market, you do your MVP, you iterate.

No, there is no MVP for this.

You've got to get your service. And of course, there's iterations. We still do iterations every two weeks.

But the point is, once you're in the service, your basic shit better work, right?

And we had made like a big claim in the market by saying, look, we're going to definitively change the customer experience or what it's like to consume mobile services.

So what that meant was that we call it the walk in the wilderness.

We had to walk in this wilderness for three years with, you know, you can't raise a lot of money in that wilderness because, you know, everyone's like, where's the proof?

You don't have any proof because you've not really closed anything and you don't have the first single revenue or the first customer.

It's like waiting for this great opportunity after three years and suddenly it could go off.

I could go completely zero. So we had to wait. And then there's regulatory, like you said, there's a regulatory component to it.

There's also the bandwidth acquisition we do.

We get bandwidth for the, you know, where do we get the spectrum or where do we sort of rent the spectrum fraud?

There's a lot of work involved in that.

A lot of partnerships need to be struck and they sometimes take anywhere from six months to a year.

So doing that part, it was three years before we launched.

We saw the first, you know, taste of any revenue or any proof that this is actually even an idea.

And I got to support the people that supported us during this process because that was the toughest, because even the toughest supporters, the strongest supporters started to say, Hey, are you sure you want to do this?

It's too late in the game now. I'm in. So were they, were those supporters, you mean the investors or your family?

I think it's the investors, you know, you know, at some point like there's a, okay, I've got two answers.

So that the first answer is, yeah, investors do support you in the last regular questions, but you know, in the early stage, only, you know, people who believe in you do the investment, right?

Especially the early stage people, they're not really investing in the business, they're investing in the people, right?

So I think there's, yeah, of course, ask questions and say, are you sure?

They want to see your conviction.

They want to see if you really mean it, right? They want to challenge you.

Like, are you sure you want to do it? But I'm going to tell you that, you know, when it's the hardest is the people who are closest to you that start to question you a little bit out of concern.

So for three, four years, you've not had a job and not seen a single dose of revenue or subscribers.

It's those people closest to you that will create the biggest doubt in your mind, because they will come to you and say, hey, you know what?

I saw a great job. I think you'll be perfect for it.

Are you sure you want to do it or quit and do this? And they mean the best.

They mean the world for you, but they'll still ask. Got it. So since we are a technology company and interestingly, thinking about you, Michelle, Matthew and Lee Holloway, who can no longer be in the business, but I guess three, three co -founders and two co-founders still running Cloudflare.

So it's very interesting to hear your perspective on that.

And obviously it's worked very well for us, but we are a tech firm.

Tell me a little bit, you know, at a high level, what kind of technology you guys use and what you've had to do to build Circle's life?

Yeah. So this is a, this is a great question because it goes back to see fundamentally the biggest problem with the telco world has been the legacy tech.

They've just been on-premises boxes sold by vendors for the longest period of time with long cycles of improvement or, you know, what they would call like a, you know, request to change CR requests, whatever they call it, right.

It's never been designed for a customer.

None of these systems ever been designed for the customer.

So the first thing that you, we had to realize is that we couldn't hire a person in from the telco industry or none of the vendors.

So we actually hired a person from Weiber actually during that time, Weiber was speaking and somebody who designed the infrastructure on that site.

So that just gives you the idea that, you know, if you're going to build a telco for the world, you can't start with the wrong person.

So that's the kind of people, the second person we hired was another guy also who was writing open source software for, you know, telco like the future of telco.

He was writing code that was getting, you know, added to the open source code world of like, how do telco systems communicate?

And so we started literally with that.

And then we said, the next step was when we started, of course, nobody was really putting telco on the cloud.

We were the first ones that started to put everything that the telco did on the cloud.

Right. So for us, and these are critical systems, these are, you know, this is not like we need to have, like, imagine being out of data for like five seconds, right?

You'll start pressing the screen and if it's one minute, you'll go nuts.

Right. So this is the kind of latency.

I'll switch providers, right? There we go. So, so the kind of latency, the kind of requirements, the kind of, you know, the infrastructure we had to build was, was actually we were leading the way and we're still ahead in a lot of ways.

And a lot of telcos are now coming on the cloud and, you know, it doesn't matter who was talking about cloud, but nobody was doing it because it's complicated.

So we're the first ones that put everything on the cloud, including the, you know, the order provisioning system, the internal systems, external systems, and it led to so many benefits.

For example, our customer support system is all inbuilt because it's based not for telco calling first, it's based for chat and email first.

So it's designed by us internally because nobody else was there doing it for telco perfectly.

And that meant that when the COVID crisis hit, all of our agents are already mobile.

It can run off a laptop or anything else. All our systems are completely accessible from anywhere because it's always on the cloud and they could work off their machines, even in the suburban areas that they live in now.

And so going back to the specific question, the, the, the, the point is we use Internet technology to bring it back into the telco world.

And it was not a trivial exercise because the telco world really required a lot more, you know, high levels of high thresholds of requirements when it comes to quality, reliability, redundancy, and all that.

The Internet world was break fast, do fast, execute. So it's a conceptually different way of building things.

And then we had to find leaders in engineering that could actually understand that and do it because I could look and find the best telco CTO in the world, or I could go look for the best Internet technology CTO in the world, but I could never find anyone.

So in fact, one of the proudest things we have is we built a very high quality team of people that understand both, right.

And, and actually they're able to, you know, bring that vision alive.

And that in fact becomes our, one of our competitive advantages because, you know, we've been building this team for six years.

I mean, you send all the problems that actually happen when you try to do scale systems and telco.

And, you know, it's a funny thing, but I'll tell you like we break, you know, when you, some of the requirements that the telco, you know, sort of use case has breaks database systems quite often, frankly, right.

And so we break it at a scale where, you know, regular Internet company would need hundreds of millions of users.

And with just millions of users, you can break that because just the requirements are too high.

Like for example, if you're using your data right now, it's an active account that is reducing your balance every time.

But at the same time, you could also ask how much data I have while you're using the data, right.

And I'm hundreds of. Okay. I just want to interrupt you because I'm worried we're running out of time.

And this is so interesting. A couple of minutes ago, you mentioned how you were dealing with COVID and it's pretty hard to have a conversation right now without addressing that.

And I know you guys have some interesting approaches.

So I did want to make sure we get to how, because of this technology, we're able to keep going and whether you needed to pivot in any way because of COVID.

Yeah, I think in terms of interesting question, because, you know, Telco is an interesting business because it's actually quite resilient.

Telco is a need for people, right.

Which means that, you know, it's not, you're not going to switch off your, I mean, it's probably the last things you're going to switch off.

But the reality is there are different parts of a Telco business. For example, roaming.

Roaming is a very nice part of the business, which is also profitable, which completely has gone to zero.

Right. So the real key about us has been about, you know, being grateful because we're in a lucky spot because our business is recurring and it's actually quite resilient, but also building the future a little faster because you've always had this ambition with Telco is that, look, once you're a subscriber, we have all the KYC information, all your information with us.

And to offer you a new service is fairly easy within a few clicks.

So this was always our ambition to build a platform and then be able to offer you interesting services.

Now we were thinking we'll do it one year from now, but when we got this drop in revenue, we've been rapidly offering very interesting products to our users like insurance.

Now you can do three clicks and get insurance from our platform.

So here's an example. We're resilient, grateful, but at the same time we got hit and it's a hit enough that we have to evolve and we have to borrow from the future.

So at the end, it becomes a great thing. You also have something that you don't have to go into a store, do anything in person to get provisioned, right?

Yeah. So we've launched eSIM and we're launching in multiple markets, which basically means that if you have an iPhone or one of those phones that actually have eSIM, you can literally transfer your number over and provision over within seconds.

Like literally, go to the website on the mobile right now and you can bring that service over to you and you'd be on a much better service, much better experience, much better customer service instantly.

Are you pitching us?

I'm just asking directly. Pitching would be too soft. Okay. We have only got one minute left.

So can you, I don't know, any advice you have for wannabe or existing entrepreneurs out there, something you'd like to share?

I really liked the, I wrote down conviction versus confidence.

I thought that was a nice turn of phrase.

Anything else you want to share before we go? Yeah. I think just a few things that I share with when people ask me that question is that I think you've got to dream a lot more than you analyze.

And it's funny because I come from a very strong analytical background.

So for me, I can always analyze and I think most people can analyze, but I think if you're going after something ambitious, you've got to keep dreaming.

And it sounds absurd, but if you're not dreaming enough, you just can't envision.

You know, in physics, a lot of the future came from first dreaming physics before the maths and the actual, you know, details came out.

Thank you, Rameez. Thank you everybody for joining us. Remember that as an entrepreneur, you need to dream more.

Bye-bye. Thank you. Bye-bye.