Advice to My 20-Year-Old Self: In Conversation with Mr Alvin Poh

By The Mentoring Circle

Alvin Poh is not only a successful entrepreneur, he is also someone with a big heart. As the CEO and co-founder of Vodien—Singapore’s leading cloud hosting provider, Alvin broke into the ‘Big Boys Club’ when Vodien merged with an Australian firm, Dreamscape, in July 2017, for S$30 million.

Success, however, has not gone to the SMU School of Information Systems alumnus’ head; he still remains the affable, good-natured, down-to-earth young man, politely answering every pesky (and repetitive) question thrown at him. Most impressively, Alvin has given back to the SMU community, donating S$250,000 towards a scholarship supporting the SMU education of needy students.

Alvin was impressed with the SMU pedagogy, and deeply impacted by his university experience. A scholarship recipient himself, Alvin wants to pay it forward, with the hope that the next generation of alumni success stories would want to give back in future too.

In the build-up to Odyssey 2019, a recent mentoring event that we had organised, we had a chat with Alvin to find out more about what advice he has for undergraduates today.

Alvin is turning 35 this year. If he were to write a letter to his 20-year-old self, this is how it would go:


What advice would you give to a student seeking a fulfilling career?

My parents had hoped for me to be a professional, like an accountant or a banker. In the end, I chose entrepreneurship and ran a cloud hosting company in Singapore. But I never found that work was a drag nor did I dislike what I did. Every day’s work and tasks were different, and I relished the new challenges that I faced at work. This passion that I had for my work made me obsessed with it and became something that I truly enjoyed.

What is popular doesn’t mean it’s suitable for you. We all have our preferences and interests. You have yours too, and that will affect your career choice. A career is going to be something that you will spend years working on, so make sure that it is something that you like. You’ll find yourself working late at night, over weekends, and on public holidays. You’ll be having to sacrifice other activities and time with family and friends. The question is: will you do it because you want to, or because you have to?

Find out what is it that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning. You might choose something because it’s the popular choice, or it’s something that your friends or family think is good for you. But if what you’re doing doesn’t excite you, then it’s hard for you to devote the time and effort to truly excel at it.


How do you find out what your interests are?

Unless you have an incredibly high level of self-awareness, it’s hard to figure out what you would like to do for a career. That’s why you need to get out there and chalk up experiences.

I was naturally curious about computers and technology when I was growing up. It fascinated me that I could create things with the computer, and I got interested in web design and cloud hosting. It turned out that other people needed help with those areas, and I started providing web design and hosting services. My passion eventually turned into my business, and it started growing from there.

If you haven’t found your passion yet, be curious, and keep an open mind. Never discount or say no to anything without giving it a try. Read widely. Sign up for classes about everything—art, programming, design, dance, fitness, sports—and see what you really enjoy and are interested in.

Talk to people in the industries and roles that you’re curious about. If you don’t have direct contacts, ask for introductions from your contacts to people like these. Go for networking events, or use LinkedIn. If your school has an alumni chapter, you can even approach them for advice or help to be introduced to someone who can.


What did you wish you knew when you were in SMU?

The importance of networking can’t be emphasised enough. Sometimes who you know is more valuable than what you know. Start by connecting with everyone. You won’t know when you’ll need the help and advice of your professors, friends and schoolmates in the future. Perhaps you’ll need a good introduction to join a company, and you find that a schoolmate is working there. Or maybe someone else in school starts a company that you’d want to join. The possibilities are endless.

Make friends not by asking “how can they help me”, but, instead, asking yourself “how can I help them”. If you selflessly add value to people’s lives, you’ll be someone that they remember. And if you ever need a favour from them in future, you’ll find that they’ll be more than happy to help you out.


What would you say is the most important step to take while in university?

In university, the most important thing is to grow and develop as a person by stepping out of your comfort zone. It isn’t a straight line between your first day of school to the day you graduate. Neither is it supposed to be a place where you simply just get a degree out of your time in school. University is a place that allows you to experiment, to push your boundaries, and to experience things that you’d normally not be able to do. Take modules that you’d normally wouldn’t. Learn foreign languages. Join clubs and societies and sports that you always wanted to try. At the end of your time in university, you should graduate knowing yourself much better, and being a better person holistically.


How do you define success?

I find that life is short as we only have a few decades to live whatever life mission we have. Everyone’s personal mission is different, and fulfilling my personal mission is being successful, in my opinion. It is everchanging, but, for the moment, my mission statement is to make a positive difference to people’s lives, and to be happy while doing so.

Knowing what your own definition of success is, is important because it will then allow you to steer yourself in the right direction. A personal mission statement is important, in order to have clarity on whether your actions are in line with your core ambitions. Everyone should spend some time every day thinking about this until you have a crystal-clear mission statement. This will allow you to focus on the things that matter, and to say no to things that do not support your mission.

You can read up more on Alvin’s stories on his blog

This article was originally published on The Mentoring Circle and has been republished with permission.


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