At age 18, Steven Bartlett made a sudden decision to skip the traditional step of higher education and instead go straight on the entrepreneurial path. Now, over a decade later, he hasn’t looked back.
When attending a lecture as a former student at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, Bartlett came to the quick conclusion that it would be his final day, according to The Guardian.
After dropping out, he had the freedom to fully pursue entrepreneurship. Within that initial year, Bartlett founded his first business, a leading social media marketing agency named Social Chain. Fast forward to five years later, and the success of the agency led to him becoming a millionaire. What’s more, Bartlett claimed on BBC One’s “Dragons’ Den” that by age 28, he had built Social Chain into a £300 million (or about $382 million USD) business.
Bartlett recalled in an interview with AFROTECH that going from a university dropout to a millionaire in a short time span stemmed from him going so hard to prove himself — that having a degree or not, he could be successful.
“When I first started out, I didn’t have any business qualifications, mentors, or a solid plan,” Bartlett told AFROTECH. “Everything I’ve done has been a series of experiments that led to valuable lessons.”
Not initially having a set plan has ultimately worked out in Bartlett’s favor when considering his accomplishments. Along with being the host of his popular podcast, “Diary of a CEO,” the serial entrepreneur is the founder of Flight Story and Flight Fund as well as co-founder of Thirdweb, a web3 development platform, and Until, a fitness marketplace. In addition, he’s invested in over 40 companies including Whoop, Zoe, and Huel, according to his LinkedIn page.
Following the business empire Bartlett has created, he’s on a mission to support entrepreneurs in building their own multi-million-dollar businesses. He spoke with AFROTECH about his trajectory as a businessman, his mission to support female founders, and redefining the meaning of “success.”
AFROTECH: Not only are you a multi-hyphenated entrepreneur, but you also champion aspiring entrepreneurs. Can you recall the moment when your passion for entrepreneurship first formed?
Steven Bartlett: I’ve had an entrepreneurial streak since I was very young. Pinning it to a moment, I usually refer back to my experience of dropping out of university after the first month, as the moment
when I first recognized I had a passion for entrepreneurship or at least for having a “hustler” mindset, which is how I would have interpreted it back then. I knew when I first started my first business at 18 years old that I had to make things work, purely to prove to both myself and those around me that I had made the right choice by dropping out of university.
And so this passion has continued throughout the rest of my life, and truly becomes apparent to me when I interview my guests on “The Diary of a CEO” podcast, as I more often than not leave each conversation with a refreshed sense of inspiration and renewed energy to tackle
my own work.
AT: Becoming a millionaire by 23 is a major accomplishment. However, now that you’re in your 30s, are there lessons you wish you would’ve known before reaching that status?
SB: Many, many lessons! At that point in time, I was insecure and driven completely by my need to be seen as “successful” and reach that millionaire status at any cost — as I came to learn, what I was pursuing wasn’t real success. Succeeding in your career but failing in every other aspect of life is not success.
A key lesson that has taken me a long time to learn, and I wish I’d learned sooner, is that
“success” — at a fundamental level — is achieving balance. For me, this is across emotional intimacy, the social connection and community that creates, my health (mind and body), and my professional ambitions.
Most of us will need our definition of “success” to fail us before we are able to reconsider what it actually is. If you’re able to tune in to yourself and understand how you’re actually feeling, then you can decide whether your definition of success has been failing you or not.
AT: In addition to being an entrepreneur, you’ve invested in successful companies. Every investor has their own strategy when it comes to what types of companies they invest in. What are some things that a company has to check off on your own list in order for you to invest?
SB: I prefer to focus on the people behind the companies, as I’ll ultimately be investing into their energy, passion and commitment to their brand. If the founders don’t 100% believe in their own product, neither myself or the potential customer will either.
Over the past few years, I’ve also been investing in spaces that match my personal interests, particularly within the health, wellness, and fitness space.
AT: Earlier in 2023, it was reported that you launched Flight Story Fund and you said, "If we don’t back the next female-founded unicorn in the next decade, I would consider myself a failure with this fund." What is the current status of the fund? And, why is it personally so important for you to support the next female-founded unicorn?
SB: Our team at the Flight Story Fund is still very busy with work. Myself and the team are in a privileged position to see many founders and their stories and are committed to investing and working with the very best startups.
My ambition is still to find and support the next female-founded unicorn. While we’re moving in the right direction in terms of broadening the range of voices that are heard in various industries, I am passionate about championing female-founders and ensuring that they have access to the resources that’ll help them achieve unicorn status in any way we can.
AT: Your podcast, “Diary of a CEO,” has put millions of listeners on to the game. Can you tell me about a time when someone shared a helpful word of business advice with you during a challenging time on your entrepreneurial journey?
SB: I had a fascinating conversation with Will Ahmed, the founder of Whoop. We delved into the concept of first principles, and specifically, how true innovation requires a focus and discipline that may initially feel uncomfortable. What sets Whoop apart is its embrace of what is different, and that notion strongly resonated with me. It reinforces the importance of businesses staying true to their identity and thinking independently when considering
AT: You co-founded Thirdweb in 2020, which was around when Web3 was really a trending topic. As the buzz has died down a bit recently, how have you navigated that? Has the company had to find a new approach?
SB: I’m totally behind blockchain technology, and I think it’s gonna be everywhere in the future. I’m in it for the long haul, even though the initial buzz has toned down. People got all hyped thinking blockchain was just about selling digital images for crazy money, but the real deal is the tech behind it. Thirdweb is doing incredibly well as a business and lets real creators do their thing, and build on that tech.
AT: You’ve partnered with BBC Maestro for a course on starting and scaling a multi-million-dollar business. What is the biggest takeaway that you hope aspiring business owners will have from the course?
SB: When I first started out, I didn’t have any business qualifications, mentors, or a solid plan. Everything I’ve done has been a series of experiments that led to valuable lessons. I’m incredibly honored to share everything I’ve learned about starting and building successful businesses.
From dealing with money and fear to navigating inexperience, investors, and building resilience, I’ve shared everything I wish someone had told me at the beginning — the things no one talks about. It’s about getting through the toughest, darkest times and emerging stronger, building a brand that lasts, and creating something you can truly be proud of.
AT: Do you have anything coming up for 2024 that you’re able to share?
SB: My team and I have a number of exciting announcements planned for the year ahead. Nothing I can share just yet, however, keep your eyes and ears open in the coming months, as we’ll be launching a new project, which we’ve been working on for a while and we can’t wait to share with the world.
To learn more about Bartlett’s BBC Maestro course, click here.