From Streets of Botswana to Throne of The Den

The Meteoric Rise of Steven Bartlett

From Streets of Botswana to Throne of The Den

The Meteoric Rise of Steven Bartlett

“Time is both free and priceless. The person you are now is a consequence of how you used your time in the past. The person you'll become in the future is a consequence of how you use your time in the present. Spend your time wisely, gamble it intrinsically and save it diligently.”

He’s a man who’s currently blazing the trail for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

You probably know him if you’re a podcast listener or spend your downtime scrolling social media.

He sits on a velvet chair in his recording studio in Shoreditch, East London.

An iconic dark-walled space featuring a crystal chandelier.

Wearing his trademark black top and trousers.

Indulging in a ritualistic sip of Huel as he electrifies the airwaves, probing deep into the minds of the most inspiring people on the planet.

While simultaneously breathing a youthful exuberance into the veins of one of the BBC’s most-watched shows Dragons Den.

Having grown a marketing company from his dilapidated bedroom to be worth over £300 million and igniting a thunderous wave of social media magicianry worldwide.

And published books which instantly became Sunday Times bestsellers.

He’s grown an investment portfolio which puts him on track to becoming a billionaire by the age of 40.

He’s been inducted into Manchester’s Hall of Fame by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, voted as the “Most Influential Industry Figure”, and won a handful of prestigious awards including the Black British Business Awards and the Great British Entrepreneur Awards.

And he’s only 31 years old!

It’s jaw-dropping. It’s mind-boggling. Some would say it’s quite frankly preposterous.

But this man was not handed a silver spoon from the get-go.

His upbringing was a whirlwind of contrasts.

A collision of cultures.

A testament to resilience if there ever was one.

He was a hustler – a street-smart visionary marching his way through a world that seemed stacked against him.

Remaining tenacious in the face of doubts, setbacks, and failed relationships on the way.

You’re about to witness the backstory of an entrepreneur that is defining an entire generation.

The man. The Myth. The legend.

The one and only Steven Bartlett.

Now it’s time to unravel his life story chapter by chapter on David to Goliath:

A Quest for Validation

Born into the streets of Botswana in 1992, Steven's upbringing was woven by threads of hardship and hope.

His mum was an eccentric character, and a powerhouse who never let illiteracy define her.

She was a force of nature in her own right, having weathered the storms of life with an unwavering resolve that belied her humble beginnings.

Born into poverty, she had known the sting of true hunger, the ache of unfulfilled dreams, and the relentless march of time that spared no one.

She was an entrepreneur, launching a chain of businesses that included a supermarket, a beauty salon and a furniture shop.

“All of them went under, but what I learned from her was that it is possible to have an idea and then create it”.

Steven's father, on the other hand, was a man of quiet intellect and boundless love—a structural engineer by trade, but a philosopher at heart.

But life wasn't a fairy tale. The family (he is the youngest of four siblings) moved to Plymouth, Devon when Steven was 2.

It was here, amidst the rolling hills and quiet lanes, that Steven's childhood unfolded—a kaleidoscope of memories, both bitter and sweet. A constant reminder of the thin line between stability and chaos.

The family grappled with financial hardship amidst the backdrop of a seemingly idyllic, white middle-class neighbourhood.

And Steven felt the sting of ‘otherness’, the gnawing absence of the privileges others took for granted.

That feeling of not having “the nice things other people had” created a sense of shame that he now believes drove his early striving for money, status, and most importantly, validation.

“I learned that if I was to have anything, it wasn’t going to be left for me under the Christmas tree, it was going to be a direct consequence of my own actions.”

So, on he went to Plymstock School. The only black kid in an all-white setting.

For Steven, education was both a blessing and a curse—a battleground where he fought tooth and nail against the demons of insecurity and self-doubt.

He barely scraped through his GCSEs as his mind danced with visions of business. An inner spirit which he credits to his mother.

His attention was constantly focused elsewhere – from organising school trips to brokering deals with vending machine companies and taking a cut.

‘I wanted money, because my family didn’t have any.’

It was clear from a young age that his interest and talents lay in the world of entrepreneurship.

And he had one beacon of hope. A lifeline that guided him through the stormy seas of life – A TV show called Dragons Den, a window into a world where ideas became reality and fortunes were forged.

More on that later.

Escaping the Life of Mediocrity

In 2010, aged 18, Steven scraped his way onto a Business Management course at the Manchester Metropolitan University.

How this happened remains a mystery, considering he was expelled from his high school at 17 for poor attendance.

But this wasn't some grand adventure of self-discovery. No, this was a waking nightmare, a soul-crushing descent into the abyss of mediocrity.

Something didn’t feel right from the very beginning.

A system designed to churn out obedient drones rather than nurture the seeds of greatness.

He looked around the room at his first lecture, full of hungover students and a professor handing out felt-tip pens, and realised this wasn’t going to take him to where he needed to go.

He wasn't content to sit back and regurgitate information like some mindless robot.

He genuinely thought it was a sham, a charade, a twisted game rigged in favor of the privileged few.

So he dropped out after just one lecture, to begin working on his first business.

Of course, then came the ones who scoffed at his audacity, who sneered at his ambition, who told him he'd never amount to anything. 

Yep, I can relate to that!

It even temporarily shattered his relationship with his mother, who refused to speak to him following this decision.

But rather than succumb to the labels society had bestowed upon him, he chose to defy expectations, to challenge the status quo with unwavering conviction.

Even though it meant being flat broke and having to steal Chicago Town pizzas to feed himself in the backend alleys of Manchester.

“I’m good at focusing on things I’m really engaged with, but I’m horrific at engaging with things I’m not interested in. That was the story of my education. I lasted one lecture at university and deferred. I’m still deferred now.”

Still to this day, he often decries the archaic nature of the education system, one that that values grades over innovation, conformity over creativity.

“You’ve got the employment world that requires a 2:2 for jobs. You’ve got the university who are getting paid to drag you in and keep costs low, and then you’ve got the schools, which are ranked by grades. It’s an archaic system that hasn’t moved with the modern world fast enough. Information is almost redundant by the time universities publish their textbooks. There’s probably not that many that have been written about blockchain, but we know it’s a pivotal part of our future.”

When he was an 18-year-old university drop-out, living in a studio flat in an insalubrious part of Manchester, Steven was given a new diary by a friend.

On the front page, he boldly wrote the words ‘My Personal Goals’, and then listed his ambitions: to be a millionaire by 25, to own a Range Rover, to be in a long-term relationship and to ‘work on my body image’.

Surrounded by the clamor of urban life, Steven dared to dream big.

To seize control of his destiny with the passion of a warrior charging into battle.

Now, with his back against the wall, it was time to make a stand.

The Right Place at the Right Time

In 2013, after writing that list of ambitions, Steven started his first company, Wallpark – an online messaging board.

A community website where students from the same cities could connect, to share anything from advertising an event to selling old textbooks.

He applied relentlessly to appear on his favourite TV show, Dragons Den, to secure investment and get the message out there.

But all he received was the icy stares of the Dragons as they turned him down.

Heart-breaking for a boy who absolutely loved this show growing up – it gave him his first real lessons in business and was a constant north star.

But hang on till the end for the plot twist.

Instead of throwing in the towel, Steven rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

He saw potential where others saw rejection, and he doubled down twice as hard.

Whilst working to grow Wallpark, one of the main things he learnt was the behaviour of young people on social media. Twitter in particular.

And as you know life is about seizing opportunities, turning setbacks into stepping stones, and the magic that happens when passion meets preparation. 

Throwing a curveball when you least expect it.

One day, while scrolling aimlessly through Twitter (as we all do), Steven stumbled upon a page that caught his eye.

The Leap of Faith

This was a page aimed at students run by a student at Edinburgh University.

His name was Dom McGregor.

A kindred spirit, a fellow warrior splashing raw personality all over the internet.

The page was filled with content that was hilarious, relatable, and downright genius, which in turn attracted thousands of followers.

Steven saw the opportunity to use his platform to connect brands with their audience in an exciting and innovative way.

“If there was a way to weave a brand’s message seamlessly into the page, and engagement and following wouldn’t suffer, I wanted to create it. I got in touch with Dom and shared my vision, and soon enough he ended up ditching his studies too.”

So, in 2014, aged 22, the two turned this venture into a business out of Steven’s bedroom in Manchester.

A social media marketing platform. The first of its kind.

Their first client was a gaming app called Tippy Tap, where the brief was to simply boost app downloads. Uncertain of the results it would yield, they launched the campaign into the unknown and hoped for the best.

As an entrepreneur, you have to take leaps of faith and trust that the universe has your back.

As they say, no risk no reward.

And the result? Tippy Tap sat at the top of the app store for weeks and even made BBC headlines.

It was then that they knew they were onto something. A real breakthrough moment.

But let’s be real, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There were late nights fueled by caffeine and ambition, moments of self-doubt that crept in, sleepless weekends travelling up and down the country to buy as many popular social media pages as Steven could afford. 

Days when failure seemed inevitable.

But it would turn out to be the inception of a huge social media marketing wave, which Steven and Dom rode to shore, as they went all in and created a chain of social media pages, one by one.

And thus the name of the business, ‘Social Chain’,  was born.

A disruptor in a world drowning in blandness.

Set to change the marketing game in ways you could never have imagined.

From the Trenches of Rejection to the Summit of Success

Fast-forward two years, Social Chain became one of Europe’s most influential marketing agencies, working with Goliaths such as Spotify, Microsoft, Comedy Central, 20th Century Fox, P&G, Puma, Just Eat and Hungry House, to name a few.

They turned their Manchester HQ into something magical – with a slide, a ball pit, a fully stocked bar, a table tennis table and a puppy park.

Before they knew it, Social Chain was a household name, and after attracting the attention of German media power house Glow Media, they managed to secure a hefty investment.

Now, the company had a collective reach of over 200 million millennials, as well as an enviable global client portfolio.

All of this within literally two years!

That’s the power of the internet.

“I’m really bad at doing things I don’t want to do. If you’re fortunate and take the right steps, that culminates in a life where you’re doing a lot of things you do want to do.”

But let's not forget where it all started: a bedroom in Manchester, fueled by nothing but passion, determination, and a hunger for something more.

And let’s certainly not forget that old diary…

From Marketing Mogul to Media Sensation

That very diary—tattered, weathered, and filled with the hopes and dreams of a younger version of Steven—became the cornerstone of his journey when he embarked on the audacious quest to launch his podcast series, 'Diary of a CEO', back in 2017.

‘That first episode, episode one, was a total one-off experiment in my mind. I never actually thought it would become multiple episodes or a season.’

He understood how the game worked at this point, and that attention is the new currency of the world.

So off he charged, sending shockwaves rippling through the podcasting world, igniting a firestorm of conversation, introspection, and revelation.

Unravelling the enigma of business life.

Peeling back the layers of success to reveal the raw, unfiltered truth beneath.

Week after week, he delves into the psyche of entrepreneurs, cultural icons, and visionaries in the world of media, pop and business.

He probes deep into the depths of their experiences, their triumphs, their trials, and the defining moments that shaped their destinies.

Over the following years, he not only built a phenomenal reputation but also an unbelievable network.

Recent receivers of his gentle questioning have included Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, comedian Jack Whitehall, and Dr Robert Waldinger, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Even though he thought the guests would all be completely different to one another, he discovered that most of them are actually very similar.

“They’re all affected by the same anxieties. One thing that happened to them on the playground might steer the course of their life. Sometimes your curses become your blessings and vice versa. Most of the time, having a really shitty childhood is the reason why my guests end up being really remarkable people in their later life.”

The podcast is now the fastest growing in the world and rakes in over £1 million a year in advertising.

“It’s pretty mind-blowing, but it’s just numbers. It doesn’t seem real until I go out on the street and suddenly someone goes, ‘Oh my God, I couldn’t believe what Davina McCall was saying on your podcast!”

But let's not forget the journey behind the scenes.

Steven started with nothing but a £90 microphone and a duvet over his head, recording content at 3 am with no clear plan or direction.

Again, it was all about experimentation, about daring to dream and take that first step into the unknown.

“If what I do inspires someone to make a decision that will make them happier and more fulfilled, thats a fantastic thing”.

The podcast reached number 1 in the podcasting charts in 2021, receiving over 40 million monthly downloads, making it Europe’s most downloaded business podcast.

But it's not just about the numbers or the fame; it's about the lives touched, the minds awakened, and the dreams ignited.

I’m personally a huge fan of this show.

So, if you're sitting there, contemplating your own journey, one thing Steven teaches through his podcast is this: Greatness isn't a destination; it's a journey.

It's about the person you become along the way.

And it gave Steven the drive to go and move even more mountains.

Becoming a perpetual ‘quitter’ in the process.

In 2019, Social Chain and German online retailer Lumaland merged to become The Social Chain AG, listing on XETRA and the Düsseldorf Stock Exchange. The listing valued the business at over $200 million.

The company went from strength to strength, until one day, out of nowhere…

The Art of Quitting

At 27 years old Steven posted the following message on his social media:

“Social Chain was conceived on a small desk in the backroom of the uni I had just dropped out of in Manchester. I was 20, full of wild dreams, and I believed we could take on the world.”

“What started as a crazy and sometimes ridiculed idea, in the mind of a few drop-out underdogs, at a time when people didn’t believe in the potential of this new thing called social media, turned into the most unforgettable ride of a lifetime.”

It was time for him to pursue new ideas and opportunities.

And boy was he in for one hell of a ride.

“I want to keep enjoying myself every day, challenging myself to reach higher highs and struggling more towards meaningful goals in my life.”

He went onto co-found Thirdweb, the much-hyped successor to the worldwide web. It’s a software platform, backed by Shopify and Coinbase, that makes it easy to build web3 applications and add features such as NFTs, social tokens, and marketplaces without the need of writing code.

He also co-founded Flight Group, a marketing, media and investment company investing in the exceptional entrepreneurs that are building the future.

In December 2020, he created the private equity company Catena Capital, before he joined the board of directors of Huel, a £72 million-a-year food replacement company which he promotes through his podcasts.

This is alongside becoming an advisor for Atai life sciences – a company solely focused on working to cure mental health issues.

He also became an author, releasing two best-selling books where he invites his audience into the inner sanctum of his restless mind.

And last year, he launched a £100 million fund to back European entrepreneurs.

The list goes on. And on.

Remember he’s just 31!

Amidst all these accomplishments, Steven's true triumph lies not just in his successes, but in his unwavering commitment to keep challenging himself.

To keep striving for higher highs, to keep pushing the boundaries of what's possible.

Yes, there were moments when he had to bid farewell to one chapter to embrace the unknown with open arms.

In a world that glorifies perseverance at all costs, he dared to redefine the narrative.

He understood the art of quitting, a concept often vilified in our society.

“Quitting has been demonised in our society. It’s associated with being weak. But it’s the incredibly important thing you have to do before you start the next thing.”

He knew that sometimes, quitting is the bravest thing you can do. It's the precursor to new beginnings, to fresh adventures waiting on the horizon.

When one door closes another opens.

And that door for Stephen opened into a world where his childhood dreams literally became reality…

The Youngest Ever Dragon

Remember the famous TV show we spoke about earlier?

Now picture this: a young boy, just twelve years old, sitting in front of his television, eyes wide with wonder as he watches entrepreneurs pitch their ideas on Dragons' Den.

The show which he applied to go on with his first business, only to face rejection.

For nearly a decade, Steven poured his heart and soul into his ventures, facing challenges head-on and never losing sight of his goals.

And the boomerang was about to swing back.

With momentum he never deemed possible in his wildest dreams.

In 2022, at 28, Steven was invited to go on the 19th series of the show.

Not as a hopeful contestant.

Not even as a guest speaker.

As the show’s youngest ever dragon.

“I’ve been watching Dragons’ Den since I was 12 years old - it was my first window into the real world of business and investing.”

As he took his seat on the podium, Steven knew he was representing more than just himself.

He was representing a new generation of entrepreneurs, inspiring young and specifically under-represented brand owners to follow in his footsteps.

Showing them that with the right mindset, success knows no bounds.

He went onto become the most beloved dragon on the show, capturing the hearts of viewers around the world with his infectious enthusiasm and unwavering support for up and coming entrepreneurs.

He has remained at the podium ever since and with an audience of over 10 million followers across social media his impact is evident.

Steven leaves us with three key lessons:

1. Believe In Yourself: Self-confidence is the cornerstone of success, and it's imperative that you learn to silence the voice of the victim and empower the champion within. Understand your worth, demand more than you think you're worth, and watch as the universe aligns in your favour.

2. Learn How to Sell: Whether it's selling your ideas to investors, persuading potential candidates to join your team, or convincing customers to buy your product, mastering the art of persuasion is essential for any entrepreneur. Embrace every opportunity to hone your selling skills, for they will serve you well on your journey to the top 1%.

3. Master Your craft: Mediocrity has no place in the realm of entrepreneurship. Strive for excellence in everything you do, immerse yourself in your work, and never stop learning and growing. Remember, success isn't just about getting the job done; it's about doing it to the best of your ability, every single time.

As Steven himself once said, "The only limits that exist are the ones you place on yourself."

So when you close your laptop or phone after reading this newsletter, it’s time to go and shatter these limits.

The world is waiting to hear your story.

Until next time, keep dreaming like a Giant.

But fight and believe in your dreams like a God Damn Underdog.

Yours truly,

-Nigel Thomas

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