Pinecone’s story: Overcoming the challenges of building an in-house research function (and how to avoid pitfalls)


In-house research functions can be critical for some startups, but they require careful management and integration with the company's overall strategy. Find out how to create a research organization that propels your startup forward.
As the founder of Pinecone, I've witnessed firsthand the incredible potential of a well-executed research function within a startup. However, I've also seen how easily things can go wrong when research isn't properly managed and integrated into the company's overall strategy.

In this post, I'll share some of the opportunities and challenges I've encountered while building and leading research teams. We'll explore the key factors that can make or break a company's research efforts, from goal-setting and team composition to finding the right balance between exploration and product alignment. By the end, you'll have a clearer understanding of how to build a research team that drives innovation and helps you meet your business objectives.

Stay connected to the product while exploring new frontiers

Set sky-high goals and let the research lead you

At a research-driven startup, the core objective is to accomplish things that haven’t been done before. However, to ensure that your research team’s work is still aligned with the company's goals, it's crucial to set challenging, focused targets.

At Pinecone, we set audacious goals for our research team, such as making visual search 10 times cheaper or faster. Although people have been working on this problem for decades, we believe it's our job as scientists to tackle challenges that have never been solved before. We start by setting a high-level objective and then explore various approaches, such as new data structures, algorithms, optimizations or data representations, to achieve it.

When presenting problems to the team, frame them in compelling ways that spark excitement and buy-in. In my experience, the best way to get scientists truly invested is to set targets that seem almost impossible, like aiming for a 1,000% improvement instead of the usual 5% uptick. Even if the goal seems crazy, it ignites their drive to innovate.

When setting goals, it's important to give the team enough leeway to explore different approaches and ideas. You might not know at the outset where the research will take you. The key is to define what you want in broad terms and let the research process uncover the path to get there.

Create a collaborative environment

Guiding a research team can sometimes feel like herding cats — scientists are often independent thinkers who thrive when given space to work on hard problems. The best teams are highly collaborative, where lots of smart people can work together on highly challenging projects.

Find the balance between innovation and execution

Misalignment between research projects and the company's core objectives is common in environments that encourage blue-sky thinking. You’ll need to get a feel for how much independence to give before reeling things back in. If scientists stay too close to the day-to-day of product execution, they won’t add significant value, but there needs to be room for them to explore concepts that aren't immediately relevant. 

It takes a delicate balance — scientists need the freedom and trust to explore the unknown and follow their intuition. But you also need clear milestones and opportunities for realignment.

Allocate the right resources for research

One of the most crucial decisions for a research-driven startup is determining how much to invest in scientific pursuits. 

This decision-making process is more of an art than a science. There's no set quota for the number of papers your team needs to publish. Instead, knowing how much to invest requires a deep understanding of your company's ambitions and the challenges you face.

Start by looking at where you want your company to be in 2 to 5 years. Ask yourself, what portion of your roadmap is impossible to achieve with just a traditional engineering team? What aspects of your vision can't be solved by simply creating a product roadmap and executing on it? The answers to these questions will guide your research investment.

If your entire company's fate hinges on making scientific breakthroughs, then you need to invest heavily in building an exceptional research team. On the other hand, if advanced research is more of a nice-to-have set of future features, you might be able to get by with a smaller investment (or none at all).

Ultimately, deciding how much to invest in research comes down to your judgment as a founder. You need to weigh the potential benefits of scientific breakthroughs against the costs and risks of pursuing research that may not pan out.

It's a tricky balance to strike, but getting it right can be the difference between a startup that solely executes on existing ideas and one that pushes the boundaries of what's possible.

A quick word about external researchers: While partnering with academics might seem like an attractive way to tap into cutting-edge research, I've found that it rarely yields tangible results for the company. These types of investments might be fine as a philanthropic effort, but don’t make them the core of your research function. I've tried collaborating with academics at several companies, including during my time at AWS, but I can't think of a single instance where there was a concrete outcome for the company. Others may have found ways to make these partnerships work, but I personally haven't managed to make them effective.

Avoid these common research missteps

While investing in an in-house research team can be a powerful driver of innovation for startups, this model can fail several ways. Understanding these pitfalls is crucial for founders looking to build effective research teams.

Straying too far. Researchers may stray too far from the company's core objectives and pursue interesting but irrelevant projects. 

Staying too tight. Conversely, keeping researchers too close to the product development process can hamper their ability to do deep, exploratory work that leads to breakthroughs.

Hiring the wrong people. You might struggle to assess the qualifications and fit of potential hires. Many founders assume that anyone with a scientist title is qualified, without understanding the nuances of different specialties and skill levels.

To avoid hiring issues, you’ll need to either develop a deep understanding of the scientific landscape yourself or partner with experienced research leaders who can help you build the right team. Hiring talented scientists with doctorate degrees looks good from the outside, but make sure to dig deeper and assess if they'll be able to help you innovate in ways that will move your business forward.

Elevate your startup with research

Building an in-house research team can be a game-changer for startups, but it comes with its own set of challenges. By understanding these potential problems and following best practices, you can create a research organization that drives groundbreaking discoveries within your organization.

The biggest takeaways for founders looking to build a successful research team are:
  • Set ambitious goals that push the boundaries of what's possible and align with your company's long-term objectives.
  • Build a culture of collaboration and give researchers the freedom to explore, while ensuring their work remains connected to the product.
  • Invest in research wisely, focusing on areas that are critical to your company's long-term success.
  • Hire researchers with the right mix of skills, expertise and passion for solving hard problems.
  • Strike a balance between giving researchers autonomy and keeping their work aligned with the company's goals.
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