It is not uncommon to hear about the humble beginnings of successful entrepreneurs, after all, hard times create strong men. Alvin Poh, the former CEO of Vodien Internet Solutions, is one of them. After 17 years in the webhosting business, Alvin sold his company in 2017 for $30 million, and left a year later to travel around the world.
We caught up with Alvin to dive deeper into his journey as an entrepreneur, the ups and downs of his early days, and his upcoming endeavors.
A Humble Beginning, An Entrepreneur in the Making
Growing up in a lower middle-income family, Alvin was accustomed to days with limited pocket money as a kid. This drove him to find other means to get more money – even if it meant picking up coins from the drain.
Circumstances quickly molded him into an extremely resourceful individual.
At ten, he saw a “business opportunity” in country erasers when they were trending in primary school. Instead of playing the 1-on-1 winner-takes-the-eraser game, he bought them in bulk at a neighborhood bookstore, which was cheaper than the school bookstore, and sold them to his classmates for a profit. One venture to another, he continued to explore new income streams such as running errands for friends and adults in his neighborhood.
Despite giving his shot at many things, he soon discovered his deep interest in computing in secondary school. Thanks to his father who brought a computer home for work after becoming a sales consultant. This gave Alvin the chance to fiddle with all sorts of programming software when his dad wasn’t using the computer for work, and he became quite proficient in web design.
At 14, after helping a family friend to design a website, he was convinced by the prospects of becoming a freelance web designer. He eventually took up a diploma program in Info-Communications at Temasek Polytechnic, where he met his co-founder, Jervis Lee. The two hit it off right away and decided to start a web design company in school.
The Early Days of Building Vodien
Sustaining a company proved to be harder than starting one. Their web design business demanded a lot of personal involvement. Stranded by frequent client interactions and back-and-forth revisions, Alvin and Jervis decided to pivot towards a product-based business, which later morphed into a full-fledged webhosting provider, Vodien.
At the early stage of building Vodien, they focused on sales and client management, and just resold hosting services from a provider. However, they experienced major operational inefficiencies when dealing with customer queries. In particular, resolving technical issues was a pain because they had no control over the servers and were at the mercy of the third-party. Coupled with other factors like increasing server costs, they made the move to build their own infrastructure.
With all that they had at that point, about $5,000 in total, they bought a computer and started operating on one server. For months, they ran their business solely out of that one computer. After surviving countless heart-trembling instances with resolving customer issues, they bought their second server to distribute their customer base 50-50 over the two servers.
As the company grew, they welcomed their initial employees in a co-shared office. During our chat, Alvin shared that they had actually discussed their first employee’s performance, duties and remuneration package in the open – in front of the other businesses sharing the office. Right away, Alvin realised they should have done it in a private setting. This was when Vodien moved into their first office space in Hong Kong Street.
The Inevitable Struggles Of Growing A Business From Nothing
As a young business owner, he knew next to nothing about people management. Neither did he put much thought into the company culture at first. Being a logical person by nature, he intuitively adopted a systematic approach towards all aspects of the business – including managing employee expectations, personnel development and relationships.
While he could rely on logic in getting things right for a small team, he had to step up as a leader when the company grew bigger. As the company progressed to a new phase of growth, he had to invest more effort in understanding what motivates people at work. “People look for more than money, they care about mastery of their craft; a sense of purpose; autonomy; personal growth and job interest,” he explains.
As Alvin gradually became more adept at managing the business, he also reframed his perspective towards leadership. He started putting emphasis on creating an employee-centric company culture, reinforcing values that were important to his people.
Exiting Vodien For $30 Million In His Early 30s
The first thought of selling Vodien only surfaced in 2016, after the two co-founders were in the business for 17 years. It was a period when the Southeast Asian region came under the global limelight as one of the last remaining unconsolidated markets.
People from all over the world expressed interest in acquiring Vodien, but none called out to both of them. They were not comfortable that potential acquirers only harbored financial interests or lacked an insider perspective of the web hosting business.
To Alvin, his stand was clear. “Vodien was not only a profit-generating machine, but a vehicle that steered our vision and helped solve the pain points of the customers we served.”
Their plan to sell the business was put into cold storage, until Dreamscape came along in 2017. A leading player in the industry that was also founder-led and built from scratch, the chemistry was instantly different. Moreover, the two companies were already well-acquainted, having an office space right opposite one another in the Philippines.
They eventually sold the company to Dreamscape in July 2017 at $30 million, with the goal of expanding to Southeast Asia as a collective entity. With differences in management styles thereafter, Alvin left the company a year later.
The End of a Venture, The Start of Another
At a loss of what to do after leaving the company, Alvin sold his possessions and travelled around the world for two years. While it was an experience that he enjoyed deeply, ultimately, he knew something was missing. He then made a decision to return to what he was most comfortable doing – entrepreneurship – but this time round, as a coach to share his knowledge and experience with aspiring entrepreneurs.
One of his recent notable involvement includes developing his 5E Scale Engine (Evolve, Envision, Empower, Engage, Execute), a methodology to scale businesses; running regular master classes; and publishing his self-authored book ‘Super Scaling: Systemize, Break Free and Sky Rocket Your Business to Millions’ where aspiring entrepreneurs can learn about the strategies of growing a valuable business.
We ended the interview asking if he thought entrepreneurship is innate or some that can be taught. Alvin shared his perspective, “Like music or art, I think it’s something that can be developed. Even if you have an inclination, you still need to practice it by constantly thinking.”
While he encouraged fellow aspiring entrepreneurs to pursue their passion, it is important to understand why you do what you do. “Identify the problem you’re trying to solve, and assess if there are customers with these pain points, before you create a business to offer a solution.
Open A New Business Account
The business account that gives you more - from getting your business off the ground, managing day-to-day tasks and even growing for the long term. Open your OCBC Business Growth account now. Insured up to $75K by SDIC. T&Cs apply.
Join The DollarsAndSense Business Community
For more content that helps entrepreneurs, freelancers, and self-employed individuals and learn to build better businesses, join the DollarsAndSense Business Community on Facebook.