Sarat Pediredla came back from cancer surgery to take his business Hedgehog Lab to new levels of success. Robert Gibson meets the young entrepreneur who thinks of work as a hobby.
It was three days after undergoing surgery for bowel cancer in his late twenties that Sarat Pediredla requested his mobile phone be brought to his hospital bedside. He had an important client to call.
A fortnight later he was at a meeting in London - and would continue to travel to the capital during his therapy, helping establish an office there as his tech company expanded.
Naturally his keenness raised a few eyebrows among his nearest and dearest, who had barely got over the shock of the diagnosis, given his tender age. The thing is, though, telling Sarat - stubborn as an ox, by his own estimation - to stop working is never likely to be anything other than an exercise in futility.
This, after all, is a man who considers his career his “hobby”, regards 60-hour weeks as something close to slacking and dismisses the very concept of work-life balance.
“My family joke about it,” said the 33-year-old, who’s married to Debbie, a nurse, with whom he has two children, aged four and one.
“If I turn up anywhere without a laptop, it’s regarded as a shocking event. But I do also have a lot of time for the family and that’s because I don’t have any other interests.
“I’m not into watching TV and I don’t play sports. People find it funny, but my favourite hobby is work and, if you want to be top performing, you have to make some sacrifices.”
The philosophy seems to be paying dividends.
Sarat - now several years into remission - has seen his firm Hedgehog Lab grow at a phenomenal rate in its latest incarnation as ‘post-PC’ digital agency, concentrating predominately on mobile and iPad apps, while exploring the Brave New World of ‘smart’ technology.
In terms of the cold, hard figures, turnover has soared to hit roughly £750,000 in the last financial year. In 2015, as the business works on major contracts with a host of start-ups, that number is likely to hit £1.7m.
Indeed, the only thing holding Hedgehog Lab back has been an inability to find the right staff - but, through links to the region’s universities and colleges, things are starting to improve, with the business now employing 30 people in Newcastle, London and India,
Sarat is proud to based in the North East, taking advantage of the lower cost base, strong community and lifestyle the region offers.
His company, which recently enjoyed a double success in the GREAT Faces of British Business Awards, however, is becoming increasingly international in its reach, with the US making up a significant part of its business.
Hence Sarat recently set off to Boston with UKTI, to get a firsthand look at one his key markets. Now the plan is get an office up and running there within the next six to nine months.
“We’re in an industry that is red hot,” he said. “We don’t have an aggressive sales team, but we’re having to turn down work.
“When we took the business in the post-PC direction in 2010, lots of people told me it was foolhardy and questioned how long mobile was going to last. If only they could see the work that’s coming in at the moment.”
In the US, he added, there is even greater momentum, with budgets for mobile typically being 10-15% higher than in the UK, as well as big emphasis on R&D.
“There’s a huge supply and demand issue there,” he said. “Last year, nearly half of our revenue came from US-based projects.
“We know if we had had a physical presence there, we’d be able to do a lot more.”
In other words, it’s about maximising productivity, a theme that has run through Sarat’s life since his childhood in Hyderabad, India, a “metropolis” in which “every minute of the day is rush hour”.
He recalls lengthy, demanding school days, stretching from 7.30am to 5.30pm, followed by several hours of homework and, in his teenage years, additional study as preparation for medical school.
“Growing up, I always wanted to be a doctor,” he said. “I had no interest in technology at all then, and, being a good Indian child, you did what want your parents wanted for you.”
Indeed, Sarat only received a computer as a 16th birthday present so he could access a 10-CD encyclopedia that would put him ahead in medicine.
Except it didn’t quite turn out like that.
“I taught myself programming in a year-and-a-half,” he said. “I used to stay up at night - my mum would come in a 5am and be shocked to find I was still awake.
“By the time it came to the entrance exam for studying medicine, I said I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. I wanted to be in tech.”
Specifically, Sarat harboured a dream of setting up his own business - something that was unheard of in his family - and he went for it... via Southampton.
“Southampton Solent University, which was then known as Southhampton Institute, attended an event in Dubai to recruit British students,” he said.
“I was enamoured by it. I loved the structure of the software engineering course they offered and I loved Southamption, and so I relocated in 1999.”
In reality, though, university didn’t live up to Sarat’s expectations.
He had already picked up so much through his own enthusiasm for the subject that he found lectures boring, even “stifling”.
Hence, despite his natural talent, his grades ultimately suffered and now he believes universities need to radically reassess what they’re offering.
“Software and tech are advancing at a pace the universities can’t keep up with,” he said. “Almost every young kid wants to be a games programmer, but there’s no real education available, despite the fact that we have to get them involved at a grassroots level.
“I don’t know if I have answer to the problem, but a more vocational focus would help - Newcastle College, for example, is getting people involved in real world projects and we’re seeing things like Code Clubs in schools emerging.”
If university brought its frustrations, though, the ‘real world’ Sarat entered afterwards didn’t bring much by way of instant rewards.
Intending to get a business off the ground, he got bogged down with “too many ideas” and found himself working as freelance consultant for several years.
On moving to Newcastle and getting married, then, it hit him that things would need to change if he was to support the lifestyle he wanted.
“My confidence really faltered at that point,” he said. “I felt like a bit of a failure and regretted not focusing on the business a bit more.”
After working as a web developer for Spark Response in Gateshead for six months, however, things began to look up.
Sarat moved on to TH_NK in Newcastle and was inspired by its potential for growth.
Unfortunately, while he was “110% committed” to the business during the 18 months he was there, there was a limit to how far he go and hence he and a colleague, Mark Forster, took a chance and went out on their own.
Alas, it wasn’t plain sailing.
At first, Hedgehog Lab focused on software products for the financial services industry. When recession hit, however, it was clear the business was going in the wrong direction.
Hence, it switched its focus to become a web agency - but at the time it was one of hundreds in the region, competing for returns that could hardly be described as lucrative.
In the midst of it all, then, Sarat’s health began to decline dramatically.
“In a matter of months, I lost half my body weight,” he recalls. “I was falling asleep at my desk. We’d assumed it was something like irritable bowel syndrome, so when I was diagnosed, it came as a complete shock.”
Sarat, though, has nothing but praise for the treatment he received at the Freeman Hospital’s Northern Centre for Cancer Care and for the positivity he found among fellow cancer suffers.
He’s also quick to acknowledge the role played by business partner, Mark, in keeping Hedgehog Lab ticking over through such a challenging time.
As to the personal impact of the upheaval, cancer did change Sarat’s perspective - but maybe not how most would assume.
“I had been taking it easy,” he said. “I hadn’t been putting 100% of myself into the business. I hadn’t developed that laser focus.
“Now, I work less but with more focus and single-mindedness.”
Indeed, Hedgehog Lab went to make a bold and difficult decision - stripping the workforce down to just three and focusing exclusively on emerging technologies such as the iPhone.
Since then, the business has never looked back and, with typical ambition, its current five-year plan boils down to becoming the biggest mobile consultancy in the UK.
“I enjoy my work immensely,” Sarat said. “Even on tough days, I enjoy it. My wife asks me how I can sleep when I’ve got 30 people to look after, but I like to be responsible for people.
“I guess I just deal with stress in a completely different way.”