Scaling Up [S4.E7]: Conquering the world from Southeast Asia with Abhiskek Gupta, Co-founder of Circles.Life
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Abhi is on the forefront of unlocking the mobile economy in Southeast Asia. We discuss many facets of the market and the approach Cicles.Life is taking to win against large legacy telco incumbents.







Ed (02:55): Abhi, welcome to Scaling Up. It’s an absolute joy to have you on the show this week. You grew up in India. It’s such a sensory experience for anyone that’s been there. The smells and noises are like no other. What are your childhood memories growing up in India?

Abhishek (03:11): Well, it’s funny until you come out of India, you don’t think about the sensory experience and then you start to notice the lack of it. But growing up in India, I think the biggest thing that you notice about your childhood is the extreme competition. It’s a country of 1 billion people and back in nineties, eighties, even when I was growing up, not too many resources and not too many opportunities. You just grow up being competitive, you just grow up being intense as one might say. So those are my childhood memories actually just from, pretty much from the moment that I remember anything I remember competing in some shape or form. So that was one. And I think the second is and this is a surprising thing actually about India. It’s surprisingly warm, and I don’t mean climate. I mean people are surprisingly warm despite the competitive nature of being there. So just that mix can be a little bit hard to kind of put together sometimes. But those are two things that come to mind.

Ed (04:13): Wonderful call outs because you’re right that the hunger that you have shown in building circle’s life is evident. And I’m sure that started from a young age, but the contrast of just some of the most beautiful people in the world, but still always trying to get ahead, finding their way in the world. It’s an interesting insight. Let’s just put together a little thumbnail sketch of your career after leaving India as a teenager, you worked at some of the great consulting companies around the world and then into private equity. What were some of the skills that you learned? I mean, such a wonderful training ground. A lot of founders do come out of these consulting firms BCG or McKinsey’s. What were some of the skills that you think that you’ve tapped into that were really fostered during those years?

Abhishek (05:02): When I first went in the first few skills were focused much more on functional things. How to think logically, how to think about stuff in a structured manner, how to think about business problems, how to present your ideas. But really, I would say that would be doing a massive disservice to my experience at McKinsey. Because really what McKinsey exposed me to is problems at a global scale or challenges at a global scale. And essentially saying, it doesn’t matter, you’re a 24-year-old, it doesn’t matter. You should back yourself to try to solve those problems, at least intellectually approach those problems. And if I look back at that time, I would say the biggest takeaway or the biggest learning for me was being able to think about something grand and not being held back by being just a fresh graduate or like someone who just took a couple of years of experience.

I would say that was the biggest, biggest learning. And of course, I think the second piece, which has definitely helped us here at Circles is working with global teams’ folks spread around the world from different backgrounds. I problem solved on customer service-related challenges for a bank in Indonesia with a mountaineer from Argentina who had no idea about banking, right? That was my first day in Indonesia. You could say you don’t know anything, so how could you problem solve? But at the same time, it gives you that confidence that you can pick up pretty much anything and if you apply yourself to it, you can actually get to a pretty good solution.

Ed (06:29): These problem-solving skills that really come out from these consulting firms. Often we have these various founding stories. Some are based in these sort of deep hustle scenarios and others are more deliberate. It feels as though your founding story with your co-founder was of more of the deliberate nature trying to attack a clear opportunity that you’d seen in an industry that you’d deeply examined. You’d sort of realized that there was this disconnect between the huge amounts of free cash flow that telcos were producing compared to the customer experience. And so that provided amazing ingredients for disruption. But I’d love to hear how Circles was born and give some colour to those early days around the founding story.

Abhishek (07:15): It’s so funny because at the time when I was making the decision to start the company with my co-founders, I think we did go through exactly what described, just looking at as industry, thinking about the structural challenges that exist with regards to bad customer experience and you the kind make. But I think it really started with something very emotional, actually, for all of us, one of the greatest memories of my childhood, and I think my co-founders have surprisingly similar stories are around picking up the cell phone in early two thousands and making a phone call. You are, you’re listening to someone’s voice on a device that is not connected to anything else. It may seem like the most basic thing today, but back in the day, even telephony used to be a huge thing. To have it disconnected from many viruses was a massive thing.

I think there was a strong emotive element to it. At the same time, we saw the decline of the industry happen over a period of time and I think that was, that was the other thing, right? Because we’ve all gone through 20-minute phone calls with a customer service team at a telco. We’ve all gone through being charged more than what we thought we should be charged or traveling overseas and picking someone’s wrong phone call for a $200 bill. We’ve all had those stories and I think it was a combination of kind of thinking about where the industry was going, but also an element of kind of just peeling the pain ourselves. I guess that’s where the pieces spoke about earlier. The whole McKinsey piece I think came in handy because if I had not done that, I would not have thought about attacking something so grand, so huge, truly a multitrillion dollar industry. But yes, I think it was a combination of those things and my two other co-founders, one of them was actually working with the Singapore government to look at the telcos in Singapore and the second co-founders working at a telco and trying to attack these problems. The funny thing is, despite those the powers that they had thanks to the positions they were in, they felt helpless to actually chase telcos, which made it even more exciting for us to actually go out there, take on a challenge, which is really difficult.

Ed (09:20): And of course, huge tailwinds to the sector in Southeast Asia around the developing world because much of the personal computing elements that went into the developed world were just completely skipped. And you would’ve seen it right through Asia, and I’ve seen it in India personally, of the middle class, just all of a sudden having a telephone that became accepted practice for them to run their lives off much of the way the developed world now does. But they missed the intermediary step of the personal computer in many ways.

Abhishek (09:48): Absolutely, absolutely. And the other thing that happened with that skipping of that step is that they jumped straight from lousy taxis to Uber. They did not go through the medallion taxi system in New York. They went straight to grab; they went straight to Airbnb. In the process, the customer sentiment around what is good service, what is acceptable, what is considered best in class, was defined very much by these global players, by the Netflix of the world, by the Airbnb’s of the world. That was great. You could say tail wins for us because we could go into the market and say, this is the right way to live your life

Ed (10:25): In relation to your first act and essentially it was a fully digitized direct to consumer telco offering initially to Singapore, but then to Taiwan and Australia as you grow. What were the insights that had developed as to why this customer centricity was so important and how you were going to disrupt these legacy telcos?

Abhishek (10:48): We learned a fair bit from these three launches. I think the first one is that I think we realized that we were being very harsh to telcos actually, that was a surprising realization. The telcos themselves wanted to deliver really good experience, but they were held back by their technology, held back by their legacy systems. Some of the systems that telcos work on, even today, by the way, were developed in 1980, 1990. And could you not? They are, they’re horrible, right? I mean, you can’t blame the systems, you can’t blame the telcos for it. What’s happened is 2G came around and then you had 3G, 4G and now you’re talking about 5G. And the new technology forced to work with the old technology because what are the telcos to do? As we saw that problem, it became apparent that the customer experience bit has to be done in a way that leaves the legacy systems behind, almost doesn’t care about it and designs it from.

The telcos did not have that that benefit of starting a fresh while we did. And that’s when we really started to look at customer experience beyond Telco. We tried to look at the best in class. When it came to your sim card delivery, we looked at Amazon how do they do it in two hours? We looked at food delivery. If food can be delivered to you in half an hour or less than an hour, and you’re going to put it in your body, right? It’s something you care deeply about. Your people are very they get really pissed off if the food doesn’t come on time. Why should a sim card take four days to deliver to a customer? If you can predict your bill for Netflix, why is it that you cannot predict your bill for your telco service?

Predictability of bills came from that and hence kind of removing one of the major pain points for customers, which is around build shop. Another example would be the customer service experience, when you reach out through call centers to these telcos, it’s a horrible experience even today. But if you look at something like Uber, it does it so seamlessly, it has to do it in real time. So, we really look for best in class experiences across the world at different industries. And thought about how might we be able to bring it to that two out of three of us had never worked at a telco cause we had no such baggage. We didn’t ask why would you do it? We started by asking why not? That’s why we ended up building something that was great. Going back to the point I was making around empathy for telcos, after doing these three telcos, Singapore trade and Taiwan, we realized that this is a global need. Every telco in the world needs this, but they just do not know how to do it.

Ed (13:18): We’ll get onto act two in a second. I just want to dig a little deeper as to how you could scale so quickly attacking these legacy systems, having built your technology stack from the ground up. Often these telcos to start a new market might need two, 3000 people on the ground for call centers and alike, and a new opening in markets with 30 people.

Abhishek (13:39): That’s true. I think the starting point was we had no money frankly, and we wanted to launch it and as this is scarcity is the mother of all innovation. So that’s what happened here. We had very little money and we launched Singapore with I think 25 people. We launched Australia with five people. It’s crazy when I look back at this, but I think in the process of doing that, and by the way, even as we launched with such few people, there was a lot of scrutiny that went into this. Cause the regulator looks at what you’re trying to do, especially in places like Singapore where no one else had launched help for a good 15 years. There was a lot of scrutiny around how we’re going to do things. And in order to save money, we had to automate everything that people would usually do in it day.

We ended up automating everything about customer checks, about delivery, about billing, about any question that you may ask. In fact, the biggest question I would have for my customer service heads, he would come to us and say I need 30 people and my question to him would be, how would you do it as three people? I’m not saying 25, I’m not saying 27, I’m saying three. Because that forces him to think about ground-breaking ideas around how he would use technology and how he would solve the problem. That’s really how we went about solving it and the best part, I guess is the customers did not want to deal with partners anyway. They just wanted to deal with the machines, right as you with Uber. So, I think that strategy worked out for us. Automation, no need for people definitely worked out for us.

Ed (15:09): A fascinating insight into first principles. You alluded to the playbook that is now slowly being rolled out and act to having built this technology stack. There was an insight that in fact every telco in the world required with their legacy systems. There’s been somewhat of, of a playbook of, okay, let’s run a B2B SAS company that provides this full technology stack to telcos. All the insights aside from the ones you’ve already described that led you to chase this opportunity. I’m really fascinated because it is a very, very different muscle, these enterprise sales motions selling to telcos as opposed to delighting consumers on the consumer side. Can we dig into this a bit?

Abhishek (15:54): Yeah, I’ll start with our missions and we by the way talk about our missions all day long. But one of our missions is giving power back to customers. As we reflected on that, we felt like just going only with the B2C offering is going to take us 20 years to serve maybe hundred, 200 million if we’re lucky a billion customers. The problem is now in present for most of the telcos. So, it really stems from our missions and we started to think about how might we be able to take this beautiful system, this playbook, and this way of operating a telco, how do we truly evangelize that? And the best way appeared to be, to actually take it to the folks who already own the customers, have the licenses, have the ability to roll this out if we could support them.

That’s how we decided to make the switch, if you will, to doing both B2C as well as B2B. While a lot of the focus now is on rolling this out across telcos, and we just rolled one out by the way in Indonesia last year, and in the process of rolling something out in Japan, which should be new soon, it definitely required us to think about selling very differently. It required us to think about operators of the system not being in our control, if you will. And it goes back to what you just said, I think it went back to first principles. We had to, again, think about setting up the enterprise sales team from scratch. Frankly, none of us have done B2B selling before, but we had to think about, all right, who are we selling to? What are their pain points? What is the persona of the telcos that would like us literally green sheet problem, time will tell if it’ll work, but it’s not failed as so far. So that’s how really, we started to approach it. And then of course, meeting folks like yourself who’ve helped so many SaaS companies grow so that we are not just operating in a vacuum.

Ed (17:44): Let’s maybe just fast forward and put on our futuristic goggles for the moment and what maybe Act three can look like and maybe more specifically what the telco industry could look like in 10 years. And what excites you the most about being inside?

Abhishek (17:59): That’s a great question by the way. I think there, there should be three major secular trends in the telco industry in the next 10 years. I think the first is a separation of the asset from the consumer. Just as we’ve seen in the case of Airbnb, Uber to some extent Netflix, the asset owners need not own the consumers, the asset owners being the towers spectrum owners in the case of telco or in the case of fiber companies, the fiber infrastructure and the specialists at owning infrastructure, they should do that. The consumer ownership is a very different thing. the metric you’re held to is not power utilization. It’s instead net promoter score, it’s customer engagement scores. So, it’s a very different skill set, and I think that’s the first separation that will happen. I think the second thing that will happen is the increased role of data.

And by that, I mean not just IOT and 5G kind of stuff that you hear about. I think that’s table stakes and that’s something everyone will tell you, but it really is around leveraging customer information to offer many more services than what you see Telco offering today and it’ll vary by markets. So, in markets like Indonesia, you may see B2B lending or customer credit scores or even their digital footprint and leveraging that to offer financial inclusion or content or gaming or if you do it right, even healthcare. Just to give you an example with the customer information that every telco has, they should be able to predict when you’re likely, people have a heart attack in your life and the percentage of it, I know it sounds crazy, but just by the lifestyle you lead, how much do you sleep? Which clubs do you go to?

How long you hang out there? Are you working out or not? You don’t need too many data points actually to get to that. That’s pretty crazy. The question is why hasn’t it happened? And it all goes back to legacy systems and all the customer information being spread across hundreds of systems in it. So anyway, that’s the second major trend that’ll happen. I think the third major trend as a result of that is around consolidation and this is going to sound a little more bold perhaps, and time will tell if this will happen. Just as you have one global winner in Facebook and you have essentially one or two players doing the ride healing bit or Netflix being a major global winner. On the consumer ownership side, I do expect to see a handful of owners for pure connectivity and then vertical specific owners. So, you may have say someone owning the video part of it and running the entire telco experience through that. Maybe by dance will have its own telco, which it offers to consumers around the world, and it may do a global deal with all the asset owners and hence it’ll be a very, very different experience. So, BMW might pool their architect, you’ll have very few winners, but those winners will have specialization, either you experience specialist or you’re a workplace specialist.

Ed (20:56): One thing I love about hosting this podcast is having domain experts with crazy visions in many ways, sitting here in amongst the day-to-day hustle and grind and still have the ability to elevate their thinking to what their industry that they are experts in may look like. That was a wonderful little snapshot of that. I just want to zoom out a little for the moment. Many of our listeners are either Australian centric or US centric, just given the nature of the people we’ve interviewed and hopefully that can change over time. Can you give some colour to the technology scene in Southeast Asia that you are at the forefront? Many gravitate naturally to the grab SPAC, which is the largest spec so far, the Uber Asian equivalent, but there are so many localized needs on the ground that people who are not on the ground probably don’t get a sense for. So, I’m just curious what these may have been maybe contrast any glaring variances in in the challenge of scaling in Asia maybe compared to anywhere else?

Abhishek (21:58): I think firstly, I think great question by the way. I think there’s so little that’s known about this part of the world, although you have close to half a billion people here. It’s a massive market. I think that’s the first overarching thing that I would say. It’s a massive, massive market. If you look at the size of the market and the growth rate of that market and the under penetration of services, if you put these three things together, it might be one of the most exciting parts of the world actually today. What makes it more complex though is the many jurisdictions that you have. You have the large Indonesia in Philippines to some extent, but everything else is really split and spread. What you see with companies like Grab is that they have tried to bring it all together and I think it’s a great example SEA, Grab, GOJA to extent they’ve done a job trying to put Southeast Asia on the global map.

So, I think just in terms of overall opportunities, still massive. You think about financial inclusion, it’s ultra-low, if you think about screen time, if you think about smartphone penetration though, it’s very high. When you put these two things together, you start to see that there must be many, many opportunities here. So massive space, I think scaling businesses here is actually quite challenging for a variety of, I think firstly getting hold of great people in Southeast Asia is not the most straightforward, especially if you’ve been exposed to talent in Silicon Valley. If you’ve been exposed to talent in China and the hunger and drive that China has, building great businesses requires a lot more here. From the point of view of getting the right people from the point of view of getting the right amount of funding, I think the space is still nascent.

That’s good news in some ways. If you had to put a positive spin to it, because many funds can set up here specialists’ part of the world could totally come here and be a part of this growth journey. I think the third piece, which I think is an outcome of the second piece, is that I’m yet to see too many original ideas actually immerse from Southeast Asians. If I had one criticism for it, I think it would be that you see a lot of me-Too models, but you don’t see too many original ideas come out of it. So that’s where Circles struggle a fair bit, frankly in the first two, three years of our existence. Because the first question that people asked us was not how great this could be. The question that was asked was, where else can I see this?

And my reaction was, why do you need to see it elsewhere? And they would say, because that’s how we do things. Then you go talk to folks in Silicon Valley and they would say, oh, they will not even ask you that, they will not even talk about your vision, they’ll try to extend your vision. I think we’re kind of coming out of that phase a little bit. There are companies like Circles, which is trying to do that. There are many other companies that are trying to change that a little bit. I think it’ll happen over next five, seven years. The region has begun attracting a lot of good people, especially folks from the markets that you, your podcast is perhaps more popular in the US because it’s a great landing point for folks to come into Asia. Singapore is essentially a city in the more like works, it’s safe, it’s completely anglicised and it’s a great landing point or steppingstone into the rest of Asia. Singapore has seen some of that.

Ed (25:23): Interesting call out around the Me-Too models. And we saw the large technology companies in China really go vertical off the back of just having a massive marketer and taking ideas from the states and Europe and our Australian listeners, of course our property got sold to real estate group. They’re the kind of businesses that we do associate with the Asian technology scene. And here you are trying to execute on a completely original vision and that’s what inspires me so much about your vision. You called out that there are some really active venture capitalists now you’re obviously well-funded by Sequoia, who have large funds out of India and China Square peg from Australia have just moved up to Singapore. Feels though there’s been a shift in the public markets, you’ve got the Singapore Exchange that has been largely industrial based, but Hong Kong has really shifted over the last five years off the back of these large technology Chinese companies.

Abhishek (26:15): Yeah, that’s true. I think there’s been a lot of movement. I think the other thing is the technology companies in Southeast Asia, they are no longer seeing Singapore or Hong Kong as the places to list or to potentially provide exit to the early investors. Grab being an example, we are looking at go to Gojek and Tokopedia combined as a, as a company potentially also listing in the US and a few more. So, I think you could say that there’s, the exchanges in Southeast Asia have kind of not really picked up on the thing, but I think it requires a full ecosystem. If you ask me you need the public market investors to be active here and nationally those teams are much smaller here compared to Hong Kong or a place like New York. I guess this is back to late nineties in some ways where companies used to go public very, very quickly.

We are seeing that trend come back all over again. We went through a period of late two thousand where the question that was asked was, why would you want to go public? You don’t want release too much information. Then the regulation changed, which allowed people to not share information even if you had I think 200 investors or something like that in the US, and people just stayed for a lot. But there’s a lot of benefit to going public, especially if you’re ready for it. I see public markets as a disinfectant if you will. There’s a lot of stuff that sits in private companies, which I think, and we’ve seen that with the likes of WeWork and whatnot. I think all of that needs to come out and I worry about the bubble, which hopefully public markets will help to ease out.

Ed (27:39): Not the only one who have those worries. I love the use of the term disinfectant there and of course the ASX is a wonderful place to list for Asian companies as well. I do want to zoom back into Circles life, and you called out the challenges of scaling the people and this is something I know that you are deeply passionate about. So, let’s spend some time here. Can you give some colour as to the culture that you’ve tried to build within your team? How it’s evolved from ideation to how it exists today?

Abhishek (28:11): We are very particular about culture at Circles, and we really think companies, at the end of the day, our people, many people say companies might be the product, might be the technology. What’s that famous expression? Culture eats strategy for breakfast, right? We believe in that wholeheartedly. The starting point for us right from the beginning actually was to be very clear on our vision being very, very clear on our missions and the values that the vision and those missions. Because without the values you could sway very quickly. Your strategy could change, but your values should not change. Your day-to-day tactics could change, but the way you operate yourself, the way you think about life, the way you think about work, those things, if they change too quickly, then I think it becomes very hard. And that’s, those are the basics on which we kind of built everything at Circles when it comes to culture.

And that frankly goes through every aspect of how we operate ourselves, be it how we hire people, we check for cultural, they may be created what they do functionally, but if they’re not a frankly begrudgingly, I must say we bite the bullet, and it’s much better to that. If someone joins, we do make a lot of effort to onboard them onto our culture, sharing what the values are, but not just that, why are those the values? When we say work hard, work smart and take ownership is one of my favourite values at Circles. What does the word ownership mean? Just truly having that debate and not just, if you’re a CXO or you’re reported to a CXO, but you’re N minus four, we’ll have that debate with you. We’ll open that discussion and people will say, ownership means accountability, but it means so much more to me.

And just sharing that so every person who walks in through the doors at Circles gets to experience that directly from the founders and we do that on a regular basis. Everyone’s evaluated on values, 70% of your score evaluation, which happens by the way, every quarter is done on the basis of what you’re supposed to deliver of course. But that 30% is purely on and your evaluation opens with that. It’s subtle things that you put in there, you could with your targets and then got into value as much later. But we opened with culture just because we did not want to get deprioritized in any way. That also means how people get supported and nearly support people through that journey of either fitting in dearly well or slowly finding their path out. It’s a controversial point frankly, but I think it’s an important aspect of Indian culture. So, to your question more directly, I think it’s an intense culture at Circles and we believe strongly in it. People either fit in really well or we find a way to fit them in or a period of time or we make decisions fast through that.

Ed (30:54): I don’t think it’s a controversial view at all, having been a part of some wonderful high performing teams that these deep cultures are in fact the greatest competitive advantage any team can have. And I know that you’re on that same wavelength, so maybe a description as to how you’ve seen what you’ve built culturally really kick in from a competitive advantage point of view.

Abhishek (31:15): It kicks in a few ways actually. I think firstly, if you see what’s happened in Southeast Asia, especially in Singapore, actually over the last three, four years, pretty much every major global company has set up its headquarters in Singapore. And that also means where do they take talent from? They take talents from companies like Circles. Our ability to hold onto our talent, to continue to incentivize them is on the back of our great culture is on the back of our ability to say, sure, you could join Facebook tomorrow, but does that resonate with the way you want work? Does that resonate with your sense of where you want the vision of your life in this company to be? I think it’s definitely help us there. I think that’s the most obvious and measurable thing. I think the less measurable things may be more important.

Imagine Saturday Night Australia’s playing cricket with West Indies, and you want watch that match. I just wanted to bring the cricket reference in that moment you have Steve Smith on 99, right? And in that moment, you are unlikely to want to pick up the phone and talk to a customer in the Middle East because they are up and they’re doing business. But I know that people who are culturally aligned, they will do it and I don’t have to talk about it because that’s how badly they want to make this succeed. They want it more badly than I do sometimes. That’s, that’s a hardware feeling. It’s just like we all have each other’s back. We are on this mission and to me, leadership to a great extent is about putting together a group of ordinary people to create extraordinary outcomes. That truly to me is the role of leadership actually. And I think culture underpins that.

Ed (32:51): You’ve called out this humble ownership mentality that you’re trying to foster. I know you believe that many of your employees should be part of an employee ownership plan, which traditionally hasn’t been a part of Asian culture. Could you give some colour as to the value that something so simple can drive outcomes within your business and how that’s evolved?

Abhishek (33:14): So, we might be the only company that I know of, at least in Southeast Asia, where every employee has stock each and every employee. You could be a first-year analyst out of college, you could be cleaning the tables here, but you have stock in the company. And through that everyone has ownership. There’s a sense of belonging. The folks who are much more aligned with the culture, they actually get disproportionate, high amount of stock to the extent of almost six to nine months of their annual salary could be just added at the end of the year on top of everything that they were expecting just because the evaluation or they came through as what we call space explorers. So, we have this space team at Circles, everything’s about space going, going to the moon, you know the rocket ship.

One of the themes is around space explorers. Space explorers are the guys who are doing great things with their inspector streams, our culture values and folks who we wish will want become co-founders. They’re co-owners today, but we would love for them to become co-founders and through that, apart from whatever equity that they would be getting another six extra months every year. There are people who want it year after year after year, and frankly no amount of salary increment anywhere else can take them away. That just makes me feel great because would love to do business with them.

Ed (34:34): Scaling the people and culture is essentially how well founders and CEOs can scale themselves. I’m fascinated how you have seen your job evolve over time.

Abhishek (34:46): Such an interesting question. Firstly, I should say it evolves every six months because if you are scaling fast, it evolves very, very quickly. In the beginning when it was just the few of us, I think it was more about ideating, thinking about things to first hiring people and just you become a recruiter in the beginning to someone who’s just a manager of three people or four people to someone who’s ideating on big things and going after those things. I think now the role is very different. I think today the role is much more about inspiring people, inspiring teams, inspiring leadership teams to actually achieve great things. At the same time, keeping the eye out for the big strategic changes, some of which we spoke about. It may be specs, it may be what’s happening in the vertical SaaS space, what may be happening with talent worldwide.

I think that’s been a bit of an evolution. But I think the biggest thing that’s kind of driven that growth personally for me has been having a support structure or you could say some way to have feedback come to me on a regular basis, be it through board members or through mentors or folks who work with me or even ex-employees, just having them to kind of shape my thinking about personal development. I think that is one of the least spoken about things actually, at least in Southeast Asia about founder growth. One has to keep learning and learn faster than the organization. Because whether you, like it or not, your organization grows at the pace that you are growing. I personally think it gets harder. You have to grow at a faster pace than the organization and that comes from having a lot of feedback around you and being conscious of your own growth.

Ed (36:26): Couldn’t agree with you more. I’m going to call out a shared mental model that we have that I discovered while doing some research on you and that’s on this idea of having a personal board of directors of mentors. Companies have their own board of directors and executives can really ensure that they are helping drive outcomes hand in hand with those directors. But on a personal development point of view, people underestimate the power of having their own personal board of directors. I actually have one myself and I actually haven’t come across anyone who has shared that mentor model, so I’d love to hear your thinking behind it.

Abhishek (37:01): Yeah, look, I think that’s been one of the biggest sources of growth for me, surrounding myself with people who truly care about me, who truly care for my development and are unafraid to tell me things as they are. And this happens to pound us a lot because you have to believe in something that’s seemingly impossible. So, finding that balance between am I being stupid about it or does it make sense to do it? Or what am I doing wrong? I think it just, it’s easy to be lost in that and having folks who are not being emotional about it, frankly, I think it helps people who are willing to think deeply about it. To me it started by thinking about my, stages of development, how was I being an average leader or a below average leader? And it really started with conversations with my co-founders, actually.

So, they were my first board of directors, if you will, my personal board of directors. Then as my family learned more about what I was doing, I think just enabling people to speak their minds really helped me there. Then as we professionalize more folks at Sequoia have been very helpful to me, our board members from Sequoia have truly helped me there. Now Woba and their managing directors help me, but folks who are not in the business sometimes are also greatly helpful. People who’ve run their own businesses before or people who have nothing to do with the start-up world. Just being very conscious of it and making sure there’s a rhythm to meet with them and having an agenda I think really helps. I’ve been very particular about it. If I look back at my seven year journey, seven and a half year journey as a co-founder, if I look back and see wherever I have plateaued as a leader or as in my personal development, there’s been periods where I did not seek out feedback or where I just assumed that I was doing well.

Ed (38:45): It’s important to also call out. I think that a personal board of directors is like any other, you need diversity of thought, you need domain expertise, you need people who you can rely on, as you say, for that feedback, that can be completely objective. One thing I just want to touch on that came out through this research was that you were thinking about being an actor when you were growing up, you wanted to go to acting school, that you’ve done a bit of rapping and there’s a theme here I want to explore, and that is the power of storytelling. Because it seems to me that that is such a crucial ingredient for any founder and CEO to be able to communicate not only with investors, but also their employees to tell the story around the mission. And it’s fascinating that many of the guests on this show, this series have had similar experience. Ethan Berman was a playwright in Paris before he founded Risk Metrics. Howard Loman sang opera and so, I’d love to get your insight maybe into how you think this could have affected you and your role as CEO.

Abhishek (39:51): Let me start by saying we don’t have CEOs by the way. We have co-founders and the reason is, maybe it’s a part of the story that we tell each other, but you’re right, I think storytelling plays is a massive, massive role. You’re essentially bringing people along on a journey, especially if your vision is too far out in the future or if it’s too bold, people need to be convinced of it be it your, investors, your employees. But guess what, it doesn’t stop there. at home you’re talking to your partner, right? In my case I have to convince her that this is worth doing. If I’m working at two o’clock in the night, it is the right thing to do. You could be talking to your parents, to your friends, and guess what, you’re telling a story to yourself too throughout that. I think the storytelling is absolutely critical and I think it is also a good way for one, to address questions, challenges that other people may have, and kind of build that into your narrative, you’re thinking by telling stories and by getting questioned on the stories, you start to realize what the gaps may be.

For me, acting a slightly different role. I was a very shy kid growing up and acting truly allowed me to just get on a stage, speak to thousand people all at once and just do it. Which is so important too. You’re, you’re essentially right in the front. You’re talking to folks nonstop. If you that confidence sometimes it doesn’t matter what your idea is. So, I think acting definitely played that role, but definitely also opened my mind to very different kind of perspectives. The people you meet at a McKinsey or say at a private equity shop, are typically not your actors. They’re not people who are thinking about their next gig. They’re not thinking about traveling to Hollywood, sleeping on the streets to one day become actors. They’re very different mindset. So, I think it’s been a huge part of my upbringing actually, just, just being exposed to the arts.

Ed (41:41): What strikes me about you is this high-performance mindset that you exhibit. I hear it a little bit from other founders, but it’s really resonating with me. And there was actually an interview on national TV over the weekend here in Australia with Nick Molnar, one of the co-founders of After pay who was calling out the similarities of the journey of a sports person and that of a co-founder. And this is really coming out in, in your performance mentality, not just about execution, but this mindset that you talk about. It feels a little lazy on me if I’m being honest, just to draw out sporting comparisons cause it’s obviously my background. But how do you think about dealing with adversity? Because it feels as though you just want to be on this general trend sort of upwards to the right, not trying to fall into the habit of getting too high or too low as the cycles sort of kick in.

Abhishek (42:33): I actually really enjoy adversity. I know it sounds crazy, but I really do actually, and let me just go back to my childhood a little bit. I think just growing up in a very competitive environment meant that you won sometimes, and you lost very often. I actually learned to live with losses relatively early in my life. Actually, I would lose very often in the beginning, of course, no one’s happy, but then I guess what I had was my board of directors back then as well, my, my parents who truly believed in me and they would always tell me, it’s okay, it’s fine. They would often tell me; this is going to sound crazy. They would often tell me; you’re built for greatness. You will do something great. Look, it can be pressurizing for many. But I guess they understood my mindset.

And what I realized is not so much that you built for greatness. I guess the point is, if you encourage yourself enough and you have enough encouragement in your life, you’ll work on any kind of failure. Now let me give you a flip story to that. This is when I was 12 years old. I remember walking into the computer room in my school and they were trying to coach us on programming, and I did not have a computer at home and they were three people doing it. And they were doing this on a blue screen. I don’t know if you remember this in early nineties, like it used to be ultra geeky, right? And I remember getting there and I felt it was so difficult that I didn’t even try. And I still regret that moment. I was scared of feeling that’s what it was.

I was scared of feeling. If I had picked it up, then who knows what I might have done with it? Who knows if I had started Facebook? Who knows, right? I think the thing that I take away from these experiences is I think it’s totally okay to fail. I think what’s more important is to aim high. And really, I think that truly encapsulates how I think about things. I think aiming high is one thing that I think is super critical to how I think about life. Your dreams should definitely not get in the way of that. Your dream should at least enable that and then you’ll fail along the way, that’s totally okay. Just remember that you’ll eventually get there. To me, persistence and not giving up and believing in the dream is so important. And which is why I say businesses should start with a vision because vision is what provides you that why that keeps you going through the ups and downs. Aiming high is, that’s a very personal thing to me, but having the clarity on the why truly allows you to go through ups and downs and that gives you the sustaining encouragement

Ed (45:02): I think on that nugget of deep inspiration. We might wind this up, but just been wonderful to hear your story and have a little bit more of an understanding of not only the journey that Circles life has been on, but also the technology scene that is growing in Southeast Asia. So, Abhi, thanks for joining me on Scaling Up.

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