Hedgehog lab is a full-service mobile agency that specialises in building mobile experiences and touch screen interfaces.
In the full interview below, Sarat talks me through his journey so far as an entrepreneur and why he decided to start his own business.
Can you give you some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
I was born in India and moved to the UK to study at Uni. Fortunately, I met my wife while I was at Uni and decided to stay in the UK permanently. I worked for a long time as a freelancer with a few jobs in the digital industry, before finally taking the dip into starting a software company of my own.
I have always had big ambition and entrepreneurial instincts as I was growing up. However, growing up in a middle-class Indian family, the expectations were that you studied really hard, achieved academic success and went to the US to Harvard or Stanford, and ended up working for Microsoft (then) or Google or Apple. My family were especially risk averse, and generations had been brought up on the theory that having a secure “job” and employment was the only way.
I am very grateful to have an extremely supporting father who encouraged me to pursue what I wanted without worrying about the risk of failure. I wanted to be a billionaire by the time I was 20 and I was willing to work day and night for it by dropping out of school. However, I am sure that had I kept on at that pace, I would have burned out before I reached my goal. It was just too much pressure for someone young to handle and it could have gone horribly wrong.
My father helped temper this by insisting I not skip school and that I get a decent education first. He taught me that it’s not how fast you get to the top but how long you stay there. This gave me a chance to try out education and employment both before I set out by myself and really helped me broaden my experience and understanding.
Tell me how the idea for Hedgehog lab came about?
I’m afraid there is no grand story behind this. After I got married, I decided that it was very important that we were able to buy a house to get on the property ladder. To do this, I felt I needed a full-time secure job that will allow us to take a mortgage. With this in mind, I took one of my very few employment roles at Newcastle-based digital agency TH_NK.
Although I joined TH_NK as a low-level developer, my passion for my job and the general start-up environment that the organisation had then, allowed me to rapidly progress to a level where I was leading teams and taking responsibility for delivery of multi-million pound projects.
As well as my job was going, I was never satisfied with how quickly I was progressing. I felt I hit a glass ceiling and the size and type of the company didn’t allow any more growth. Combined with this, I was starting to really be a thorn in the management’s side as I don’t respect authority very much unless that authority is myself. I really wanted to run my own company and be my own boss.
While I was mulling quitting and starting on my own, I got to know my co-founder, Mark Forster very well as he worked with me on my team. I got the general feeling that he too wanted more from his work and over many cholesterol-induced fast food lunches, I convinced him that starting a company with me would be a great idea.
It sounds hare-brained in retrospect given we both had families, very well-paid jobs, and mortgages/debts with no real savings. However, it sounded like the right time to do something.
We weren’t entirely sure “what” we wanted to do. All we knew was that we wanted to start a software company where we could bring our own style of management, liberal ethics, open organisation, and ideas to fruition. We literally thought, “If we get a bunch of really good guys together, give them great tools, and get out of their way without crappy rules and processes, we can do great things.”
What is Hedgehog lab?
We officially describe hedgehog lab as “a full-service mobile agency that specialises in building mobile experiences and touch screen interfaces. We architect, design, and develop great software for mobile devices, tablets, touch screen kiosks and devices that you use on the move. We specialise in building apps for smart phones and mobile websites.”
I think this sums up what we do.
I believe the future of computing is mobile. Desktops, laptops, and other PC devices are going to be relegated to niche devices. Touch-enabled mobile devices like tablets and smartphones will deliver computing on a daily basis. We are seeing this already, with mobile devices outselling all PCs in 2011.
Talk me through the first few months of running the business? What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
To be honest, we didn’t think at the time that ANYTHING was hard or impossible. We were so excited to finally start our business and get going on our own, that there was never any time to contemplate what we were doing or the challenges we faced.
I think the hardest part was the change in lifestyle and the impact on our families. We went from being in VERY well-paid jobs with a luxurious lifestyle of spending, to being conservative about costs and bargain shopping.
On a business front, we finally found out that acquiring clients and new business wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped with our background working behind desks and not having many people in our Address Book to reach out to. It underlined the importance of building and keeping relationships and always having a list of contacts you can turn to.
How were you able to fund the business?
The business was completely bootstrapped with our own money. Mark and I had some savings put away, which we exhausted in the first few months. We started out quite moderately by being conservative with cash.
Our first office furniture was an old garden table and chairs we had disposed at my house and were waiting to take to the skip. We tried to use as much of what we had to ensure our costs were low.
Would you say the initial idea for the company, or that your business model has changed since 2009?
It’s changed very radically. As I said, we started the business not knowing what we wanted to do. It was obvious we could be a software company working for clients, as that was our background. It was the easy thing to do and something we knew very well. We started out doing web-based software and products. We tended to do everything and had no real focus at that time, as we wanted to try our hand at all potential opportunities.
However, since we re-branded as a pure play mobile agency, we have had laser focus on what we do. Everything we do is about mobile or is related to mobile. We don’t get involved in infrastructure projects, desktop projects or other web-only projects. We could very easily do that work but it distracts us from our core message: “We are great at mobile and we love it.”
How big is your team now?
We are now around 12 people and growing at a rapid rate. We expect to double this by this time next year.
What would you say has been some of the most crucial that you've done to build the company to this level now?
I would say experience is the most vital thing that has helped us grow the company. Sure, there are glorified stories like Facebook & Google, where young founders with no experience became billionaires, but the reality is that for 99% of businesses, you have to work long and hard at it to succeed.
This is why I feel all the problems, hardships and struggles of our earlier years have enabled us to build a concrete foundation for a business that will last, and if we get lucky, make us very rich!
What is your business model?
As a digital agency, we work by charging our clients for the time we spend on their projects, which is akin to consulting.
Is the business profitable?
As of this month’s accounts, it is
What’s been your most memorable moment so far on your entrepreneurial journey?
I don't think I have had that 1 defining moment yet. There are plenty of memorable moments that I cherish but none of them stands out. I think just starting up was one of the best feelings ever but it was also great to sit down with our accounts earlier this year and realise we are going to turn out a huge profit for the first time company history.
What pieces of advices could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
‘Just do it’ is my constant mantra and will remain so for years. Entrepreneurship is a difficult, risky, and often thankless path. I know people in my personal and professional network who really want to break out of their 9 to 5 job and do something on their own but are worried about the consequences.
If you are truly passionate about something, ignore the critics and take the risk. Once you do that, failure doesn’t seem such a scary idea.
What can we be expecting from you and Hedgehog lab in 2012?
We have just started to break into the London market and are working hard to establish ourselves as a national player. So, you will probably hear a lot more about us in the local and national trade press but our aim is to become the biggest mobile marketing agency in the UK. I think we are 1% on the way to achieving that. Only 99% to go