Peggy Choi on building a business that ‘powers the new knowledge economy’
After studying at The Wharton School in Pennsylvania, Peggy Choi went on to build a career in finance, working across the US and in London. During this time, she noticed a pattern emerging in the work she was being asked to carry out. ‘As an investor, you end up having to learn about new things very often,’ she says, ‘whether it’s looking at a new industry, a new company, or changing technologies and regulations.’
Most of the time, Peggy did what anyone would do when researching a new subject – she scoured the internet, read news articles, and downloaded academic reports. One method was, however, always more effective than the rest. ‘Talking to people first-hand is really valuable and the best way to learn in a more tangible and contextual way,’ she says. This realisation sparked an idea. What if you could connect people to the right expert with the right knowledge, whenever they had a complex question? ‘If that can be done efficiently and at scale,’ she thought, ‘the impact could be tremendous.’
The idea wouldn’t leave her alone and so, in 2015, Peggy returned to her native Hong Kong and founded Lynk, which describes itself as a platform that ‘powers the new knowledge economy’. In essence, Lynk exists to help its customers – companies and individuals – make better, more informed decisions by connecting them with the right expert for their needs. Its customers include global investment banks and Fortune 500 companies, while on the other side are over 840,000 experts, based all over the world, covering industries from hedge funds to Hollywood. Since 2015, the company has grown rapidly from its base in Hong Kong, and today has nine offices around the world, from Mumbai to London to New York.
Historically, knowledge has proved a slippery product to really harness with ease. Wikipedia and Google are, of course, two examples, but they offer shallow understanding and are plagued by credibility issues. How does Lynk approach this challenge? For Peggy and her team, the first step is understanding that there is always context surrounding a question. ‘Coming from an investor and coming from a student, a question has a different meaning and maybe they’re looking for different answers,’ she explains. Lynk uses big data and AI to build a complex picture around any given topic and to spot subtle connections that then help the platform improve relevance for its users.
Many will balk at hearing the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘AI’ uttered in the same sentence, given the emotive conversations that have taken place in recent years surrounding echo chambers, misinformation, and distrust of tech companies. Peggy takes seriously this context and how it impacts Lynk, asking herself and her team: ‘What does curation actually mean? Should you be fed what you want to read, or what you should read?’
Crucially, Lynk doesn’t claim to provide what Peggy calls ‘definitive knowledge’. Instead, ‘it’s about hearing different people’s viewpoints,’ she says, ‘about seeing and understanding different perspectives.’ It’s not so much about bare facts and more about a deeper and more nuanced understanding, which enables users to make smart and informed decisions. Then it’s down to the experts, who are carefully vetted to ensure their perspective can be trusted.
Peggy has not only had to build credibility on the user side, however; like many entrepreneurs, she has also had to inspire trust behind the scenes with investors. Lynk’s rapid growth over the past six years has been partly down to several timely and sizeable investment rounds. Her own background in finance and investment has certainly helped Peggy to predict some of the questions she’s been asked. Yet, there is nothing that can prepare you for the stresses and emotions that come with a funding round. ‘Whenever founders get together, that’s what we commiserate over,’ she says.
It is particularly bruising at the very outset. ‘When your company is just starting, it’s really about yourself,’ she notes, ‘and you’re trying to get investors to trust you, which is incredibly subjective.’ The line of questioning is highly personal and, because these conversations often take place in more casual settings, it can be difficult to know where the line is. ‘You have to make a split-second decision,’ Peggy explains. ‘Are we having a personal chat? Or are we having a business chat?’ On one or two occasions, a hint of sexism crept in: ‘In those early days, I had to handle questions around when I would get married and, if I had kids, would I continue working.’ Meanwhile, Peggy also had to contend with the in-built prejudices of certain investors, who had a particular image in their minds of what a founder ought to look like. At the end of the day, though, she jokes that it’s a bit like dating – you have to speak to a lot of people before you find ‘the right match’.
Thankfully, more recent rounds of funding have been less focused on her personal life. For one, Lynk now has a proven track record behind it that few would quibble over. Plus, her role as CEO has shifted from being the driving energy behind everything to now being the head of an effective senior management team. In January of this year, Peggy announced that Lynk had secured USD24m in extra investment, which was going to be used to build out the product and to expand globally, with a focus on the US, where it has already been operating for half a decade but where Peggy sees big opportunities for growth.
It raises the question: With its global footprint and its renewed focus on the US, does Peggy think of Lynk in any way as an Asian company? From the beginning, she says, the company had a global mindset (the proof is there in the company’s full name: Lynk Global). Like any start-up, it was to a degree built in its founder’s image and Peggy had spent her entire career in the US and Europe. She had never actually worked in Hong Kong before she returned to launch Lynk (a move that led to what she calls a ‘reverse culture shock’).
Today, the company has offices across three continents and employs a staff hailing from 22 countries.
Peggy’s co-founder is based in Singapore and the Chief Product and Technology Officer is based in New York, meaning that her own workdays are often split across mornings and evenings. ‘I feel like I’m back at kindergarten,’ she jokes, ‘when you take naps in the afternoon.’ At the same time, of course, the company’s product – knowledge – can’t be broken up along national borders. It is inherently fluid. If a customer is sitting in Singapore and wants to understand more about machine learning, for example, that expertise might come from Asia, but it’s just as likely to come from Europe or America. As Peggy puts it: ‘There’s no boundary to knowledge.’
Nonetheless, it’s not for nothing that Lynk is based in Hong Kong, and this decision demonstrates Peggy’s farsightedness. ‘One of the reasons we started here is that we want to have a long-term view of the world,’ she says. ‘Thinking about the next 10, 20, even 50 years, where are some of the really interesting global opportunities?’ The answer is obvious, and Lynk is based on that continent’s doorstep. ‘If we can leverage the growth momentum in the region,’ she concludes, ‘it will be a huge tailwind for us.’