“I love talking!” Sarat Pediredla is a man with much to say, as leader of post-PC technology consultancy hedgehog lab who've just opened a Denmark office. Suzy Jackson chats to the team, to build a picture of life in the lab.
Post-PC, for those not in the know, are the devices that came after personal computers; smartphones, tablets, wearable tech, amongst others.
Over the last six years, the team have carved out a reputation as a premium service provider, with a global customer base, a network of six international offices, and a constantly-growing team steeped in the culture and ethos that founders Sarat, and his quieter counterpart and co-founder Mark Forster, worked hard to build.
But the firm is actually ten years old, and has been through a series of transformations to get to where it is. After appointing Bob Paton to their board, they've brought on Shaun Allen to look at all things immersive reality, and are sending Paul Morris to head up their newest office in the Nordics.
With a client list now spanning public and private sector clients across a range of sectors, including Northumbrian Water, Channel 4 and Mitsubishi, last year saw them do their first seven-figure deal.
One by one, we examine the hedgehogs, unpicking the name, history and culture of the firm that’s making the industry prickle.
Sarat Pediredla: the head hedgehog
“In late 2004 I joined a digital agency called TH_NK. A great environment and very entrepreneurial,” he says, “and I met Mark there when he joined my team.” Sarat was 24 at the time, but with aspirations to become a leader and to create something.
With a management structure of ‘wise, experienced heads’ there wasn’t a vacancy for Sarat to move up, and between him and Mark they soon started to talk about how they might do things themselves. “I always start the trouble,” he grins, “and once the seed is sewn…”
He talks quite openly of the possibility that they were a little arrogant. “We were young,” he concedes, “we had no wisdom. We were hard workers but we always knew that didn’t equate to a good business.
“We had no mentoring, no training, and no money. So it was the perfect combination to start a business!” Bootstrapped, with no external funding, they were motivated to succeed.
They decided that software was the future, and they started to build. Slowly.
“A contact approached me and asked me to do a month’s consultancy work,” Sarat says, and he was reluctant – they were sure they didn’t want to be in that world. “’What if I write you a cheque for £20,000?’ he said.” For context, in the preceding nine months, they’d billed less than £15,000 in total. A classic no-brainer. And the consultancy work began.
For two or three years they grew slowly, organically, and by 2009 as a team of six they were in a very competitive marketplace. “We’d bid for a project we valued at £20,000. We’d bid £10,000, and it was won by someone who bid just £5,000. We realised we weren’t going to survive like that.”
They made a pivotal decision. After the launch of the iPhone in 2007 they started to build apps – there was a bit of interest, says Sarat, but no market.
And Sarat was taken seriously ill.
Diagnosed with cancer, from which he’s made a recovery he credits the NHS enthusiastically for, it dawned on him that he almost lost his business. “I needed a business that could live without me, and the only way to do that was to be a big, profitable, ambitious business.
“On that day, the business was worth nothing.”
So three weeks after his operation, as he began chemotherapy, he got on the train to London and set about making the contacts and relationships that would ultimately transform the business.
“Nobody wanted to spend money on apps up here, and so I went to London and started networking, telling people down there that we were building apps. I saw London agencies experiencing huge growth, hiring fifty people a year,” he says, and it propelled him to make his first app sale.
So if the customers were in London, had Sarat considered relocating himself there? “My wife said ‘I’m not moving. If you want to go, you can have a divorce and go, but I’m not moving.’ And that wasn’t what I wanted!” So he got used to the east coast mainline, making the journey regularly until they hired their first London staff member in 2014.
“Even now, a lot of our clients are outside the region – we’re a premium, high cost provider, and the North East is less of a priority for us,” Sarat says, and that’s an interesting point. Greggs, Sage, the giants of the North East business landscape are hiring firms based out of London to build their work; Sarat is signing up London firms and building their apps with a workforce still primarily based out of Newcastle – though they’re up to five offices internationally, with Denmark becoming their sixth.
“If you want to grow, and sustain that growth, you have to go into new markets.” And new markets are becoming something of a hedgehog speciality.
“America was an interesting story. We went to America as an employer of 28-30 people which is unheard of. And we didn’t just ‘go to talk to people’ – we invested quarter of a million dollars over there.” He recognises the narrow vertical they exist in – they’re in a niche, they don’t offer any additional services.
This is where the hedgehog concept comes into play. The team aren’t nocturnal, nor particularly prickly. Author and leadership expert Jim Collins said, in his book Good to Great about scaling up:
“The essence of the hedgehog concept is to help an organisation to obtain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, and then exercise the relentless discipline to say 'No, thank you' to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test.”
Clarity it was.
“Britain has got a great brand in America,” Sarat enthuses. “To be honest, everywhere, Britain has a great brand. It would be silly for us to be British and not leverage that proposition of quality and value.”
And they bring their clients here, to Newcastle. Frequently, they’re surprised at the office, the setup, the support, and the quality of life that exists here.
“Even now, being a global business, Newcastle is our fastest growing office, and where we’re investing most. Partly because the founders are here, but because with the strategic positioning of ‘value for money’, we still have a great brand.”
A message which chimes so well with much of the activity that goes on to support the North East. And whilst we’re used to hearing about how it’s cheaper here than London, economy isn’t the whole picture for Hedgehog. “Actually our office in India is cheaper to run than here,” Sarat points out. “But the team is less than half the size.”
The team’s newest office has just opened in Denmark, with existing hedgehog staffer Paul Morris moving across to set it up. “Denmark has always been voted a top place to do business. The Nordics are high value, rich countries; digitally connected, Smart Cities, innovative.” And it’s clear that Sarat and his team know this place inside out.
“You can drive to Malmo, to Germany… it’s just a good central place, and it’s a shorter flight from Dubai, the Middle East.”
Their offering remains entirely true to the hedgehog concept – they know what they do and they’re good at it. “We’re going to do consultancy, we’re going to do our own products, and we’re going to start looking at partnerships; lots of businesses that we can add value to, where there’s a different reward than just ‘pay us a fixed fee for this’.”
And rewards there are, within the business too. Culturally, Sarat and the limited number of leaders across the business (they keep the structure as flat as possible) are very much singing from the same hymnsheet – or playbook, if you will: the playbook is their internal handbook, no secrets, just the way they work.
"Be nice, and treat other people well."
They offer great terms, an excellent environment to work in and invest hard in keeping staff – and with a five star Glassdoor rating and a 98%+ staff retention rate, it’s clearly working.
Mark Forster: the innovative hedgehog
“I was a bit of a drifter,” admits Mark. And he was the first to leave a stable job, with Sarat joining him a few months later to officially co-found Hedgehog Labs.
“At the time we didn’t have any plans to grow into a company like this. We just had ideas, plans, things we wanted to make.”
“We’d seen how much people were willing to pay for software and so if we built it…” and Sarat hops in to finish his thought: “We’d put it on the internet and people would put in their credit card details and the money would roll in!”
It wasn’t quite that way.
Sarat’s illness was a blow to the business and things got really tough. Mark, Sarat and fellow developer Craig Tweedy retrained in the building of apps, and set about changing the business to what it is today.
And whilst Sarat is firmly at the helm, Mark’s contributions have been more fluid, in line with what the business needed to grow. Now, it’s changing again.
“I’ve moved to a role that revisits ideas we had years back, about products and innovation,” he says, and he’s keen to look at working in partnership with more of their customers; identify ideas and work from that, but also to innovate their business model.
“And there’s never a good time, you can never find the time… so we’re investing in this, investing our own profit in this, to let the team work on their own ideas.”
“Some of the things we work on might be ridiculous, crazy…” he admits, but the creation of intellectual property and assets, these are the ‘shoot for the moon’ ideas that make a difference.
“It’s a place for the guys to come and play around, to take their own ideas and feel like hedgehog lab cares about them, too.”
And there’s a twinkle in his eye that says he’s looking forward to doing that.
“If we take what we believe in, what we’re good at, we’ll grow.”
Paul Morris: the newly Danish strategic hedgehog
“I didn’t volunteer for it!” Paul says, when asked how he ended up with a plane ticket to Copenhagen. But the team took a critical look at his skills, and decided he was the hedgehog for the job.
A developer originally, Paul is an entrepreneur himself with experience of running his own business before joining hedgehog in late 2015 when they acquired his firm. He’s become the firm’s Lead Strategist, and has absorbed the culture and values that come with the hedgehog lifestyle.
“There’s no client base but there’s a semi-active pipeline,” he says, “so I’ll be the face of Hedgehog in Denmark.” And indeed beyond, as the firm looks to minimise the disruption of changes to the UK’s EU membership.
“Culturally,” he says of the Nordic attitude, “they want to build relationships and talk, not the be ‘sold to’, so it fits with us really well.” And they conduct business in English, which is good news for Paul whose knowledge of Danish is… rudimentary, just now!
Whilst they’re looking for an MD in-market, Paul is heading over with an open mind and no burning desire to run straight back to the UK at the first opportunity. And he’s quite looking forward to getting out and stretching his wings in a new marketplace.
Hedgehog is affording him the opportunity to expand his horizons, past the region that’s been his home and his workplace the whole of his life, and he’s relishing it.
Shaun Allan: the camera-shy immersive reality hedgehog
“Two weeks!” Shaun has barely got his feet under the table, but he’s already very much at home. “My remit is to get hedgehog into the augmented and virtual reality spaces (AR and VR), as quickly as possible.”
Shaun runs through AR, VR, MR – that’s mixed reality, in case you didn’t know – and Hedgehog is looked to apply these forms of technology, across a range of sectors and industries.
“VR’s a space that hedgehog need to get into, and that’s my area of expertise; I’ve been in this space for ten years.”
“Mobile VR is going to advance way quicker than PC-based VR,” he says, and as a post-PC agency their push to develop this aspect of the firm makes eminent sense.
“There’s projects here already to go; existing clients, and maybe a new one or two.
“It’s hard to think of a sector who can’t benefit,” he says, citing examples around the training of medical staff where AR and VR bring huge benefits and long term cost savings.
They’re trying to expose ideas to keep ahead of the curve when it comes to developments in this speciality, and not leaving stones unturned as they do so.
“Given the global reach of hedgehog lab, the diversity of clients and the support of the team, we can go places.”