Five tips to drive R&D culture in a fast-moving startup

Matt Curcio · May 20, 2013 · Short URL:

Sharing events bring research to the forefront and spawn all kinds of creativity

Research and development (R&D) efforts in a small company can be challenging  because resources are often scarce, particularly when you are moving at lightning speed to get a product or service out the door.

Despite these challenges, what most attracts me (and other “math men”) to R&D in a startup is the free flow of creativity across divisions and a culture of innovation. With more clear access to executives than in a larger organization, we are often able to gain acceptance from the broader team to invest in R&D efforts. While acceptance is step one, implementing a successful practice is another.  I have had the opportunity to learn how to build R&D practice from the ground up, and offer the tips below for creating a well-oiled R&D machine.

Earn Executive Buy-In

Make a strong case to the CEO and CTO about why a research team is critical to the success of the organization. Whether you are in the advertising space, tracking lunches, or application monitoring, many businesses can benefit from dedicated research resources to continue driving innovation and efficiency. To earn executive buy-in, be sure to set expectations up front. Resource scarcity can be a top challenge, and the success of the practice will hinge on working with the resources at your teams’ disposal. Clearly communicate the value that will be delivered to the organization in the long term.  Sometimes this is tricky since the very nature of research makes it difficult to plan results. In other words, manage expectations.

Nurture the Team

Research and development can be a “trial by fire” practice within the organization and can be very tough. Be sure to constantly nurture the team and build a culture that understands “failing” with grace, is key to continuing on the journey.

Continuously refine your research culture until you build one that works with your team and the organization. Some companies give their employees 20% of work time to do whatever they want. While this might work inside large organizations, there is little chance it would work in most start-ups. It is hard enough to come up with good ideas, let alone having to champion them through the organization to get buy in and the resources necessary to continue a project. In my experience, a good sense of direction with your product and management teams and a commitment to doing real research works very well.

Exploit Projects Across the Organization

Many of the projects you will be working on will be seen as exciting by the rest of the company. Use this to your advantage! You cannot get a query to run fast enough? Mooch some of an engineer’s time. Stuck in a rut? Go on a sales call. Need new ideas? Reach out to your peers. For example, at my company we present papers and random ideas. We keep it small by requiring people to present if they attend. These types of sharing events bring research to the forefront and spawn all kinds of creative cross-functional output.

Protect Intellectual Property

While I am a staunch supporter of open source and open ideas, you will inevitably be surrounded by the intellectual property of your company. Carefully consider which pieces are worth protecting and which pieces are worth being vocal about.

Crowdsource Your Network Intelligently

While it is important to identify which details of a project to share, as mentioned above, it is also key to innovation to seek feedback from personal networks as a resource. Your network is probably bigger than you think. There is no reason to hide all of your work from the world. I have tried to foster an environment where we are open about certain problems we think are globally important. Take this article, for example. Although you are not operating in an academic environment, keeping an intellectual discourse between your peers inside and outside of you company is important. Smart people like to talk with smart people. There is no reason to hide in a corner. You need to exploit and talk about all of the cool things you are doing.

In the startup world, in order to drive innovation, research and development has to be a key driver to ensure long-term success. Like we all know, great ideas can only take you so far. Whether you are the single data scientist at a small start up or a CTO looking to build out a R&D team, there are definitely ups and downs along the way, but hopefully some of these tips will make it “less” bumpy.

(Image source: Wired)

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Matt Curcio

Matt has been a startup scientist for 10 years. Matt received a M.S. from Brandeis University in computational neuroscience and a degree in Physics from Reed College.

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