It Changed My Life

IT boss vowed to make good at age five

Mr Foo worked on the first project for his start-up in his home five years ago. Since then, his firm has grown and taken on contracts such as developing the Quick Tix system for cinema chain Golden Village.
Mr Foo worked on the first project for his start-up in his home five years ago. Since then, his firm has grown and taken on contracts such as developing the Quick Tix system for cinema chain Golden Village. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Mr Foo and his wife Lim Huey Tze on their graduation day at National Taiwan
University in 2000. They got married in 2009.
Mr Foo and his wife Lim Huey Tze on their graduation day at National Taiwan University in 2000. They got married in 2009. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ERWIN FOO

Poverty and a family tragedy spurred Erwin Foo to make the most of his opportunities

As a young professional trying to find his spot in the world a decade ago, Mr Erwin Foo was slightly befuddled when Steve Jobs talked about dots and what they mean.

In the commencement address Jobs delivered at Stanford University in 2005, the late Apple founder said: "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will, somehow, connect in your future.

"You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

Mr Foo, 39, now thinks the tech visionary's words make a lot more sense, especially after he became a technopreneur five years ago.

The past, he says, will have a clear bearing on our present and future.

"I believe that so long as you give it your best, whatever you do will become a meaningful dot and, eventually, all the dots will link."


Mr Foo and his wife Lim Huey Tze on their graduation day at National Taiwan University in 2000. They got married in 2009. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ERWIN FOO

This mindset has served him well. It has helped him grow Enovax, which started as a one-man show in his study in 2010, to a bustling outfit employing 25 people.

Specialising in IT solutions, the company's revenue has vaulted from $100,000 in its first year to an estimated $3 million this year.

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He has vowed to make good ever since he was five, spurred on by poverty and a family tragedy.

The youngest of eight children, Mr Foo - who has an identical twin brother - grew up in Ulu Tiram, a small town in Johor Baru.

"Actually, I was not part of the plan. My mother gave birth to a girl, and then boy, boy, boy, boy, boy. She made one last try for another daughter but, boom, she got two boys instead," he recalls with a laugh.

His father made a living as a blacksmith, making rubber-tapping knives in a rented shophouse which doubled as the family home.

"There were just two small rooms in the house. My sister and two brothers slept in one, my parents and the rest of their children slept in the other," he says. "There was no room for beds; all of us slept on straw mats."

All the children helped out in their father's trade.

"It was like a factory line. Because I was the youngest, I was at the end of the production line and just had to wipe the knives dry. I did not have the strength to cut, sharpen or polish them," he says.

Although poor, his father was determined that all his children would receive a proper education.

"He had a hard life. My maternal grandmother died when he was born, and my grandfather died when he was just three. He grew up raised by relatives and never had an education, but he taught himself how to read," Mr Foo says.

Tragedy struck the family when the technopreneur was just five.

His eldest brother - whom he idolised - died in his sleep one night when he was just 21 years old.

"He was very hard-working and filial. He was a technician, and my mother said he would hand over his entire pay packet each month. To upgrade his skills, he went to Singapore every weekend to attend an electrical engineering course as there were no technical schools in Johor Baru then."

His brother's death devastated his parents. "Years after his death, they were still sad. In my very little mind then, I told myself I had to work very hard and do very well so that my parents would never be that sad again," he says.

Both he and his twin were self-starters, and managed to get into Foon Yew High School in Kulai, one of the top Chinese schools in Malaysia.

Their results got them into National Taiwan University - one of the most prestigious universities in Taiwan - in 1996. It made them very proud to be following in the footsteps of their third brother, who also attended the same university and was the first member of the Foo clan to get a tertiary education.

"I wanted to go overseas and learn to be independent. I knew it would not be easy to support both my twin and I, and one of the reasons we chose Taiwan was because we could legally work there while studying. That would help to ease the family load.

"I had also heard a lot about how Taiwan has a thriving SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) scene, and I wanted to see that for myself," he says.

His twin opted to study mechanical engineering, while he settled for computer science, even though his first choice was electronic engineering.

"Competition for electronic engineering was just too fierce. I scored more than 90 marks and was ranked No. 13, but there were places for just 10," he says.

Taipei was a game changer for Mr Foo. Compared with the sleepy town of Ulu Tiram, it was dynamic and exciting.

"Because (National Taiwan University) was the top university, all the top students were there. 'Wang chen mo ji'," he says, alluding to the intellectual environment he found himself in. The Chinese idiom refers to the trail of dust left by a horse rider who is too far ahead.

"But, even though they were so brilliant, they all worked very hard. It taught me one thing, that I had to work even harder so that I won't be left behind."

To help finance his education, he took on part-time jobs, selling glassware in night markets, solving computer problems in companies and making pastries in a confectionery.

In his final year, he scored a gig in an Internet company, attending lectures in the day and working each evening from 6pm to 1am.

"I was in the research and development team with about 10 other people, all of whom either had a PhD or a master's. The company was developing an online system for booking air tickets - you book online and could collect at convenience stores all over the country," he says.

Riding the crest of the dot.com boom, he says, opened his eyes.

Upon graduation, he decided to establish his career in Singapore and join start-up System@Work, which specialises in mobile payments.

"Mobile payment was then a very new concept, and I was the company's first engineer. Because it was a start-up, I had the opportunity to learn so much, especially pertaining to online payments and security," says Mr Foo, who was involved in projects for clients, including Suntec City, ComfortDelGro and Sentosa.

He was project manager when he left four years later to join Singapore Computer System as a senior consultant.

His work ethic and willingness to go the extra mile earned him the approval of many of his seniors, one of whom recommended him for a job with NCS, a leading information and communication corporation in the region.

And that was how he ended up in Hong Kong, where he supervised a HK$300 million automation project for the former British colony's immigration authorities. "I was supposed to be there for three months, but ended up staying for two years because the project was so big and complex," he says.

Consulting group Deloitte came along to offer him a job next. He spent two years helping clients streamline processes.

By then, the idea of striking out on his own had taken root.

"I didn't have a clear idea what I wanted to do, but I was clear that if I didn't start then, I would never start," he says.

In 2009, he married former subeditor Lim Huey Tze, whom he met while studying in Taiwan. While getting his wedding photos taken at the Botanic Gardens, he bumped into an old colleague who had started an imaging solutions company. "I told him about my entrepreneurial dream and he said he could help me. He said he had systems integration projects but no staff to handle them, and he could pass them to me," he recalls.

So Mr Foo went to an Apple store, bought a $3,000 computer with his credit card and set up Enovax in the study of his executive condominium in Yishun. "I had just got married and bought a house, so it was a bit scary," he says.

His first contract was to develop a mobile app for Deloitte. "I knew nothing about mobile apps, so I told my wife I would have to lock myself in my room to do it," he says.

It took him eight weeks. "I slept only two or three hours a night."

But the app - which eliminated the need for Deloitte staff to carry around maps for meetings - proved to be a hit and was downloaded 1,000 times in two weeks.

The contracts soon started coming, mostly to do with streamlining online processes, including booking and payment systems for the likes of Safra, Sentosa and Hitachi.

Within six months, he had a staff of six. Today, he has 25 and an office in Ubi. The company offers a gamut of services, from developing online ticketing systems, enterprise apps and information kiosks, to autogate systems.

One of his most high-profile contracts was for cinema chain Golden Village, for whom his team developed the Quick Tix system that eliminated the need to validate or redeem tickets at counters.

"You just need to purchase online, get an e-ticket and QR code, scan at the gantry, and the gates will open," he says.

Last month, Enovax acquired start-up Onestop Security Platform, which links agencies and security guards for the security industry. "I see a lot of potential. I can pump in a lot of services to help transform the industry," says Mr Foo, who became a Singaporean two months ago.

The father of a four-year-old girl says: "I don't want to be the richest, but I want to help industries transform. I want to find a group of people to do things that we all could be proud of.

"I don't want to wake up at 50 to find that I have done nothing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'ItChangedMyLife IT boss vowed to make good at age five'. Print Edition | Subscribe