Countless sleepless nights, unstable income and brutal rejections, a good leader should stick through them all. But what does it really feel like to lead a team through unchartered business concepts in a highly competitive market? In this post, we interview Co-founder of Vodien, Singapore’s #1 Domain Provider: Alvin Poh
What’s your story?
TLDR; At the age of 33 years old, I sold my Internet business for S$30 million and began seeking out my life’s passions and travelling the world.
My business partner and I started the company from zero dollars in revenue all the way until the company became Singapore’s #1 domain provider with 35,000 clients and a team of 150 before the 8-figure exit.
I spent the next few years travelling the world, exploring new hobbies like snowboarding, kite-surfing and many more activities that I never got to try before.
After that journey of rediscovering myself, I’ve made it my focus to help budding entrepreneurs just like myself when I was starting out to scale their business, achieve breakthrough profits AND attain freedom in time to pursue pleasures of life.
How did you get into your current line of work/ why did you decide to do it?
It all began from a small IT company we started at 17-years old and ran for a number of years. The hosting market was in its infancy then and we decided to start Vodien, which eventually became Singapore’s largest provider of web hosting services.
There was one specific, incredibly valuable lesson we learned that changed the way we did business.
We learned that running a service-based business was a great way to get your feet wet in entrepreneurship. It’s low-cost and much lower-risk compared to developing products.
However, the real lesson was when we soon found that services are almost impossible to scale without hiring more headcount.
That was when we decided to pivot the business entirely to focus exclusively on web hosting – buying physical servers, and renting out virtual space to customers at scale.
In your opinion, what are a few qualities good leaders must have?
Leaders need to possess many skills, but I feel one of the most important skills or the most important is effective communication. Just as well-known billionaire Richard Branson describes, communication is the “most important skill any leader can possess.”
I was a very shy boy growing up. I remember that I used to be so shy, I couldn’t even muster the courage to speak to stall owners when I went down to the market to purchase something.
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After I started my business, I was literally thrown into the deep end of the pool. Even the task of finding a solid business partner was something that you need decent communication skills to accomplish.
Essentially, leaders need to understand people and be able to get the right message across when it counts. Try convincing someone to commit to a long-time partnership with you if you lack the right communication skills. It’s an uphill battle.
Leaders also need to have a logical mind, be creative and learn to be able to take calculated risks. But in my opinion, almost every aspect that leads to success will require a certain level of communication skills to work.
What would you say was your greatest difficulty/sacrifice faced as a leader so far? How did you overcome it?
For me, time was my greatest sacrifice.
I spent half of my life building Vodien. That’s time that I’ll never be able to get back even if I had all the money in the world. That said, I don’t look back with regret. It was a necessary cost that I had to pay in order to improve my circumstances.
I didn’t come from a rich family. My background meant that I had to work doubly hard to break out of what my life was back then.
Any free time I had as a teenager in my early-20s was dedicated to growing our business. I’d take on roles like customer support at the beginning when we didn’t have the manpower. I’d personally handle issues that were brought up to me by customers. It was truly a time vortex, but I learned a lot about each aspect of the business because of that. I’d recommend leaders try to get their hands dirty every once and a while to be able to spot areas of improvement and empathise with your teams.
As a young business owner, I had many ups and downs. My peers were graduating from universities and many went on to bring home massive paycheques while I had to continue to plough my income back into the business. Many times I would reflect and ponder if I really made the right decision.
Truly in life, you’ll never really know, but there were patterns along the way that gave us the confidence to move forward. We had a strong team, a profitable company and each other’s support.
It was only many years later did the company grow to a decent enough size that my co-founder and I could take a step back and engineer ways to strategically remove ourselves from the day-to-day operations of the business.
My advice: Don’t shy from hard work and stay focused on your vision.
How important are storytelling skills to you as a leader? How have you applied it in your work?
Storytelling is an essential part of communication skills as it’s the medium in which we, as humans, can best connect with others. Thus, it’s a must to know how to communicate and appeal to our emotions.
These days as an entrepreneurship mentor, I find that the best way to connect with my students and peers is through stories. My experiences and the lessons I’ve learned are more effectively received and remembered when I include anecdotes and vivid imagery in my conversations.
Whether I’m looking to stand out in my marketing efforts, speaking to a large audience or helping people/businesses – I make it a point to humanise my messaging and relate my experiences to theirs. That’s the only way to connect on a deeply personal level.
Aligning the content I share to storytelling techniques has made a huge impact on the engagement I get from readers. Some techniques I use in crafting narratives are:
- Including elements of conflict,
- Making my stories conversational and relatable
- Using visual imagery to frame my stories
As a result, I’ve achieved thousands of meaningful interactions on my social channels as well as qualified traffic for my mentorship programs.
It might sound simple, but the potential positive impact is profound. Understanding how to communicate with people in a common language is one of the most powerful ways for you to have your ideas accepted and grow your brand.
How did you approach marketing your business/getting clients?
I’d say I’ve been quite lucky that the success of my first venture has left me with quite a bit of a following as well as positive news coverage of our acquisition deal.
As a result, I have an existing audience that already is interested in how they can replicate what I’ve done with Vodien for their own businesses.
As such, I’ve embraced social media as the best means to reach out to my target market by providing educational content as a mentor. I post on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Most of my posts contain a story or anecdote from my journey at Vodien which I am well-known for. This helps them understand that my expertise comes from application and also helps me develop a connection with potential mentees.
Again, marketing requires a very different approach to various kinds of businesses. I’d say as a leader, you need to become or at least appear more approachable and show that you can empathise with your target audience. Be aware of your persona on your various channels and ensure they all sing the same song and tell the same story.
What would you say has been the greatest lesson you’ve learned so far as a leader?
I’ve learned that to scale up a business, it boils down to having a few key fundamentals done right. Doing these things well will make things a lot easier, but not doing them right can result in the journey being fraught with difficulty and frustration.
Because it’s made up of several concepts that become complex as a whole, I’ve come up with a framework to layout all these fundamentals in a simple, step-by-step manner that any entrepreneur or leader can then follow.
I call it the Triple-E Growth Engine, and it’s the culmination of all the entrepreneurial lessons that I’ve learned, distilled in an easy-to-follow framework. This is the framework that I use to mentor the entrepreneurs and founders that I work with.
The Triple-E Growth Engine is made up of 3 components:
This is the base of the Growth Engine. Everything starts with the vision that the entrepreneur or founder has in their mind. The key is to translate the vision into an executable strategy. Many businesses face problems finding clients or having cash-flows issues or getting more sales. The Envision pillar of the Growth Engine refines and re-defines the business so that these problems are no longer an issue. For leaders in general, a clear vision is bedrock to your business success. If you have no idea where you’re going – you’re going to be in for a rude awakening when you find you’ve been digging in the wrong place from the start.
Once Envision is worked on properly, the entrepreneur or founder will find a greater sense of clarity and purpose moving forward. This is then when we work on the 2nd pillar of the Growth Engine: Empower. I teach them how to attract the talent that the business needs to build and retain an A-star team. Most importantly, I also show them how to work together as a team of one instead of working together as a group of individuals. Culture fit and foundational intellect are nothing to snuff at. It can make or break the dynamics and operations of your team if you overlook it.
After the first two pillars, we look at the third, which is Execute. This is an insanely powerful pillar. However, if the first two aren’t done properly, it’ll be like having a world champion taking part in a running race, but running in the wrong direction. I show founders and entrepreneurs the tools and systems and frameworks that I learned and used in my business to create legendary levels of efficiency, focus, and incessant growth. This creates an unstoppable momentum that absolutely crushes goals that the business has. One of these tools is to use SOPs and a hierarchy chart to align your operations to move without your involvement. Leaders need to avoid playing the role of a technician too often and leave those bits to the experts. Leaders need to focus on the big picture and execute on the vision. Period.
If you had to offer a piece of advice to someone just starting out or who aspires to lead a team/organisation. What advice would you give?
For the off-chance of it sounding cliche, leaders absolutely need to be crystal clear on their vision. Your vision dictates how your company or team culture is, and how you differentiate yourself from your competition. It will also translate into determining what pain points of your customers or stakeholders you’ll want to work on as a priority.
It is so easy to be focused on the wrong things. For example, a lot of new business ideas focus on solving problems that don’t exist, instead of creating solutions to ones already faced by people.
Without having the right vision, you’ll find it incredibly difficult and frustrating to find a foothold in the market. You’ll find that few customers will be interested in what you have to offer, and you’ll find that you’ll have all sorts of business issues, such as cash flow problems and worries about meeting payroll.
Some basic questions to ask yourself:
- Who am I serving?
- What are my top priorities?
- Do I know my next steps?
- What does my A-Team to accomplish these look like?
What have you started trying this year that has been working well for you as a leader?
I personally believe servant leadership is something every leader should try and adopt. Potentially, I feel it could be the best form of leadership there is. Even while growing Vodien, I believed that my role as a leader was to serve, not just my customers, but also my employees.
Leadership and culture come from the top. How you respond to and treat your team members will shape the way they become and by osmosis treat your end customers. This shaped the way that our company culture was, and I continually looked at putting my employees’ needs and development as a priority, even above my own needs at times. That meant pushing my teams to grow professionally, think critically, and to enable them to produce their best work while working with me.
I believe if you are not invested in your team, you won’t be able to get the feedback and commitment that will help propel you to greater heights as a leader.
As such, servant leadership has been a huge part of my leadership and life philosophy. Recently, I’ve been demonstrating that I live my life by the values and traits that I continually highlight.
I am very vocal about my philosophy to leadership and I’ve received very positive responses for this brand of leadership. Granted it’s worked well for me, I acknowledge that it might not work in its entirety for everyone else. Yet, I don’t see why not.
My new obsession is to create valuable content for my audience. Every time I receive their words of thanks for the content that I share, it energises me to give much more. That’s the kind of feeling I hope every leader can experience. When you get more as you give more unconditionally.
Share with us something you learned recently that changed how you intend to run your team/business.
In my first business, I went around without a clear plan of what to do. It’s sort of like feeling around in the dark. I know most leaders have been there. It’s a dark place where you just go with the motions and hope that things play out.
Having a strong mental game and framework or paradigm to follow is key to eliminating this from happening.
Whether you might want to try my Triple-E system or you adhere to your own, the best leaders to my knowledge all have their own mental models that lead them to success.
It’s never just a ‘throw things at a wall and see what sticks’ approach. It might be my developer background, but I believe that we can create systems to help us organise many aspects of our lives. Using frameworks to help us achieve our goals in leadership is one of them.
Create your own system or adopt someone else’s. You’ll find that it adds a lot of clarity to your journey ahead.
As a leader, you’ll regularly face situations where you need to get buy-in against the odds. How would you overcome a hurdle like this?
I’ve been in business long enough to know that appealing only to logic won’t get you anywhere. Emotions play a big part in how we make decisions and we need to leverage that fact to have people share our views and ideas.
Understanding my stakeholders
The way I get buy-in is to first understand my stakeholders and their considerations. What might they be worried about? What might they feel about my ideas? What do they want out of this discussion?
Incorporate into conversation
Then I have to piece together a cohesive proposal that not just addresses the benefits of the solution that I’m proposing, but also tackles the priorities and considerations that my audience has.
For example, if I was leading a product team, I might propose a project that would require 6 months of R&D before the launch of a commercially-ready product. I’ll not only have to get the buy-in from engineering but also the buy-in of the finance team, who might be more risk-averse.
As these two groups of people are inherently very different. A one-size-fits-all approach might cause some backlash.
Show feasibility and handle objections
One trick I love to use is to include details like finances. This gives people some level of assurance that decisions are measured and that there are no hidden flaws in the plan we haven’t discussed. I’d research exactly how much the whole project will cost, and cover a few examples of how risks are mitigated. Any other reasons for them to say no will also be taken into consideration when preparing my story.
Getting buy-in is like a dance. We need this person to dance with us too if not it’ll just be a solo performance. For that to happen, their needs have to be taken care of so that they feel safe enough to participate.
What are 3-4 tools (digital or offline) that you feel everyone should know about?
Ideas can hit you in a split-second and you’ll need to be prepared to document them on the fly.
I use StandardNotes a lot, which is free for most use-cases. The reason why I use a plain-text-based note-taking system like StandardNotes is that I like to keep things simple. Plain-text syncs fast, the system operates cross-platform, and if I want to, I can always export my notes out anytime. I keep my to-do list, my thoughts, and even my bookmarks in StandardNotes.
How can people connect with you?
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