Platinum takes a look at the early, and so far brief, career of Botswana-born English entrepreneur, Steven Bartlett –
the youngest-ever Dragon in the Den. By Alan Wares
Steven Cliff Bartlett was born on August 26th, 1992 in Botswana to an English father and a Nigerian mother. His mother left school aged seven and could not read or write; his father is a structural engineer. He grew up in Plymouth, his family having moved while Steven was two years of age, attending a secondary school, Plymstock School.
He later went to study at Manchester Metropolitan University, dropping out after one lecture. He explained in an interview with The Guardian that he had looked around the room of hungover students and realised “this wasn’t going to take me to where I needed to go.”
How he got into Manchester in the first place is something of a mystery as he was expelled from his high school at 17 for poor attendance. Bartlett’s earliest forays into business were while still at school, running the school educational excursions, taking some of the funds for himself, while giving the rest back to the school.
Upon leaving Manchester University, he started Wallpark. It was an online social media hub that was supposed to link students across the UK – and the world – together. However, it was also something that struggled to gain traction, though it did offer Bartlett a fairly steep learning curve – one he picked up on fairly quickly.
“I envisioned Wallpark as a place where students from the same cities could connect, to share anything from advertising an event to selling old textbooks; a Gumtree for students.”, Bartlett said a year after the launch of Social Chain.
“Whilst working to grow Wallpark, one of the main things I learnt more about was the behaviour of young people on social media, on Twitter in particular. During this time I stumbled upon a Twitter page aimed at students run by a student at Edinburgh University; his name was Dominic McGregor. Dom was posting extremely funny and relatable student content that in turn attracted thousands of followers. I saw the opportunity to use these platforms to connect a brand with its audience.
“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. Together we set up Social Chain.”
So, in 2014, aged 22, he founded Social Chain in his bedroom in Manchester, with McGregor. The company is a social media marketing platform, offering innovative awareness and creativity products. The client list is impressive, and it led to the company’s rapid growth in terms of both reputation and financial success.
He was named in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, and has won prizes at prestigious awards including the Black British Business Awards and the Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
The Diary of a CEO
In 2017, he created a podcast series called ‘The Diary of a CEO’, which has a guest list whose alumni zeroes in mostly on entrepreneurs and other assorted success stories in the world of media, pop and business. By 2021, it was claimed to be Europe’s most downloaded business podcast.
The show’s high water mark for column inches was his interview with former Health Secretary Matt Hancock. In an unapologetic interview – with Hancock’s first consideration being to justify his behaviour having been caught kissing an aide during lockdown.
It certainly wasn’t an interview that did Hancock any favours, but it was one of the most downloaded podcasts in ‘The Diary of a CEO’s library, and gave Bartlett an astonishing scoop – one any experienced journalist would have gnawed their arm off for.
The show has also courted controversy when, on December 13th 2021, former Love Island contestant, and social media influencer (weren’t they once just called ‘celebrities’?) Molly-Mae Hague made comments on poverty and wealth inequality. She suggested that those less fortunate than herself in their upbringing only had themselves to blame for their lack of financial stability, stating that, “we all have the same 24 hours in a day.”
She was accused of being ‘tone deaf’ and the remarks led to calls for her resignation from her creative director role. For his part, Bartlett, as the show’s host, commented – somewhat glibly – that if a man had made these remarks, no-one would have said anything. The backlash, he suggested, was because Hague was a woman.
Leaving Social Chain
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. Bartlett’s website initially claimed that he took Social Chain public at age 27, before leaving the company after it reached a valuation of $600 million.
These claims were subsequently retracted after The Times reported that Bartlett had left the business more than a year before the flotation, and was not named in its prospectus. In February 2023, Social Chain was acquired by Brave Bison for an initial consideration of £ 7.7 million.
Steven himself has a different personal net worth. When he was 26 years old, Forbes magazine estimated that the entrepreneur was worth around £68m, while details of his current net worth are something less well calculated.
Into the Den
In 2022, Bartlett was invited on to the 19th series of the BBC entrepreneur programme Dragons’ Den. At the age of 28, he was the show’s youngest-ever dragon. He was invited back for his second series in January 2023.
“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.” Bartlett told the BBC. “It’s a tremendous honour to join the Den, hopefully representing a new generation of entrepreneurs, inspiring young and specifically under-represented entrepreneurs to follow in my footsteps.”
Since leaving Social Chain, Bartlett has been involved in a number of entrepreneurial ventures. In December 2020, he created a private equity company called Catena Capital, then joined the board of directors of Huel, a £72 million food replacement company as a non-executive director.
Thirdweb, co-founded by Bartlett, raised $24 million in a funding round, that values the startup at $160 million, led by a $1.5 billion crypto fund. In 2023, Bartlett launched a £100 million fund to back European entrepreneurs.
Despite making his name by constructing successful businesses, the source of Bartlett’s actual business knowledge is not easy to pinpoint. He spends little time speaking publicly about his methods or approach, and instead focuses almost all of his energy on sharing his inspiring backstory. In short, until the age of 22, Bartlett is something of an enigma.
The Times has queried the validity of his stated fortune, citing public documents which show that Social Chain, the company he founded, sold for £7.7m, in stark contrast to Bartlett’s own words on Dragons’ Den, where he claimed: “I built a £300 million business at 28 years old!”.
James Hurley, Enterprise Editor of The Times, said in his investigation that “..the rise of Social Chain AG to a nine-figure valuation may owe more to mattresses and a wealthy 65-year-old media tycoon than Bartlett’s leadership.”
On February 13th, 2023, the paper reported that Bartlett is ‘not the tycoon he claims to be,’ and built and floated Social Chain with a market valuation in excess of $600 million. In return, the article became the subject of a legal complaint from Bartlett. Watch this space.
Bartlett was also written about by Sarah Manavis in The New Statesman as an entrepreneur who “styles himself as a business guru but beneath the clichés lies a thinly veiled craving for celebrity.” In a fairly hostile takedown of the entrepreneur, she called him ‘self-aggrandising’ and ‘cocky and smarmy’.
It’s fair to say, she is not taken with him. “He is, in reality, more of a bluffer than a prodigy — an influencer and motivational speaker masquerading as a marketing genius,” she opined.
It’s not a universally-shared opinion, though. Bartlett wrote the best-selling ‘Happy Sexy Millionaire’ in 2021 – a tome in which he states he is challenging convention, and correcting well-established lies. Book and podcast reviews all offer glowing testimonies to Bartlett’s success and writing. Four-and-a-half out of five star ratings are fairly common across all platforms.
So where does Hurley’s and Manavis’ ire come from? Are they the only ones to peek behind the curtain, or is it a simple case of green envy at the success of one so young? If it is the latter, their satisfaction one way or the other will only ever be realised when one thing happens – Bartlett is too old to be lauded as a ‘young entrepreneur.’