‘Insecurity was my biggest motivator’: how Dragons’ Den’s Steven Bartlett turned into a ‘happy sexy millionaire’ | Dragons’ Den

I am sitting in what Steven Bartlett’s workforce semi-seriously refers to because the Matt Hancock chair. It is upholstered in the similar plush cloth that swathes a lot of the millionaire advertising and marketing rich person, social media entrepreneur and podcaster’s penthouse flat in London. Above me is a crystal rainfall chandelier; within the nook of the room, Bartlett’s French bulldog, Pablo, snores underneath a portray of the Irish blended martial artist Conor McGregor, emblazoned with the legend: “My success isn’t a result of arrogance – it’s a result of self-belief.”

It was once on this chair that Hancock gave his first, stomach-churning interview because the restriction-breaking extramarital affair that ended in his resignation as well being secretary in June 2021. It was once a scoop for which veteran foyer reporters would have chewed off Bartlett’s arm – Hancock insisted the connection was once by no means about “casual sex” and stated he broke the Covid laws as a result of he fell in love – and but Bartlett isn’t inquisitive about the chance of interviewing extra politicians. “They’ve asked and I’ve said no,” he says airily.

Why are politicians lining up on the door of a 29-year-old unbiased podcaster? Because Bartlett’s The Diary of a CEO steadily tops the United Kingdom charts, pulling in 6.6m streams a month and greater than £1m a yr in promoting. Despite this – and Bartlett’s roster of high-profile visitors, together with Molly-Mae Hague, Craig David, Liam Payne and Piers Morgan – he says: “I don’t think of myself as an interviewer or a podcast host.”

I had anticipated Bartlett to be all throbbing ego. He is, in spite of everything, the person who dropped out of college at 18 and later based Social Chain, a social media advertising and marketing company that was once valued at €186m (£160m) in a public list in 2019, making Bartlett a multimillionaire at 27. After leaving Social Chain in 2020, Bartlett turned into the youngest dragon at the BBC funding display Dragons’ Den. He has 2.2 million fans on social media, a ripped musculature that he presentations proudly on-line and a dependancy of posting motivational quotes on his Instagram web page (pattern: “To embrace tomorrow you must let go of yesterday”). In his bestselling 2021 memoir, Happy Sexy Millionaire, Bartlett boasted: “I’m currently in the best shape of my life … have millions of followers, millions of $$$ in the bank … [and was] able to build a global business at 21 years old.”

Working it … talking at a startup convention in Newcastle in 2019. Photograph: Thomas Jackson/Alamy

But in individual, Bartlett is likable and well mannered, apologising 4 occasions for maintaining me ready as he completed a decision and reputedly as willing to listen to my perspectives as he’s to percentage his personal. His hand is grotesquely swollen, however he’s ready till our interview is over to hunt clinical consideration. “I hurt it lifting [the comedian] Lee Mack at Soccer Aid last night,” Bartlett says, sighing. (Bartlett is a large soccer fan – in his loose time, he makes use of the app Footy Addicts to search out kickabouts in native parks, turning up unannounced, to the bemusement of his fellow gamers. “They say: ‘Aren’t you that kid from Dragons’ Den? I listen to your podcast!’”)

He was once born in Botswana to a black Nigerian mom and a white British father and raised in an all-white neighbourhood in Plymouth. His folks’ dating was once dysfunctional: he says that his mom as soon as chased his father via the home with a kitchen knife and screamed at her husband repeatedly (his folks are nonetheless in combination). Does his candour get him into bother? “I made a decision at some point in my life that I was going to be honest with all this stuff,” he says. “I think I have a good relationship with my parents.”

Bartlett’s mom was once a serial entrepreneur – “the hardest working person I know” – however her companies failed. Money was once tight and Bartlett was once ceaselessly ashamed that he didn’t have the similar units or garments as his middle-class friends. School was once a combat. “My brothers were really smart and studious and I was falling asleep in class all the time,” he says. He was once one of the vital simplest other folks of color in his college and straightened his hair to slot in. “A lot of people ask me: ‘Why are you so motivated?’” he says. “The answer to that is based on a lot of underlying context about shame. Insecurity was my biggest motivator when I was younger.”

After college, he dropped out of Manchester Metropolitan University and co-founded Wallpark, an promoting platform, however struggled to convey visitors to the website online. “We had run out of money and I saw this Facebook page called ‘Things Manchester Students Don’t Say’,” he says. “At the time, brands wouldn’t go near social media. I remember being curious about what would happen if I posted my website there.” His instincts had been spot on. “We could market something on social media and it would do phenomenally better than all the other channels,” he says.

Bartlett then picked up social media advertising and marketing paintings after cold-emailing what he describes as “awful, low-tier clients”. After running as a specialist, a shopper prompt he get started an organization, which turned into Social Chain. He introduced The Diary of a CEO in 2017, whilst he was once a jetsetting government, and the early episodes have a late-night, confessional air about them. Bartlett, talking with out notes within the early hours, talks concerning the pressure of being answerable for loads of other folks, a lot of them a long time older than him.

What turns into obvious from talking to Bartlett is that, in spite of his private logo being attached to his id as a shockingly a success younger CEO, he didn’t in reality experience working a trade. “When I left Social Chain, I said to my girlfriend: I’m never going to be a CEO again, ever,” he says. Managing a big corporate was once “brutal, but I don’t think I allowed myself to admit it”.

He resigned from Social Chain in 2020 after a war of words with the board concerning the course of the corporate. “One of the things that I’m good at, and I enjoy, is the top level strategy of where we are going, the vision,” he says. “And I could no longer make those decisions, because I didn’t own enough of the company.” He first of all wrote a strongly worded resignation electronic mail, however deleted it and wrote one as a substitute from a “place of gratitude … these people had basically changed my entire life and believed in me.”

Tussling with Mo Farah at Soccer Aid this month.
On the ball … tussling with Mo Farah at Soccer Aid this month. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

The day he passed in his understand, Bartlett cried, however he was once relieved. “I just felt really free,” he says. “You can feel free and lost at the same time. Because your purpose and identity has been wrapped up in this thing.” He has therefore co-founded two extra firms – Flight Story, which builds retail investor methods, and Thirdweb, which is helping builders with out coding wisdom construct blockchain-related apps – however he isn’t concerned within the daily control, who prefer to seek the advice of on technique, fundraising and enlargement.

Despite his difficult emotions concerning the trade that made him rich, Bartlett has transform a guru for a era of younger, individualistic, financially motivated aspiring marketers. Earlier this yr, they packed out theatres for the bombastic are living model of Bartlett’s podcast. Bartlett, a musical theatre nut, recounted his existence tale from a spotlit stool, accompanied through a gospel choir directed through a former Hamilton manufacturer. (He has observed the Lin-Manuel Miranda display 8 occasions.) The Telegraph described it as “the most bonkers night I have seen in the theatre”. Predictably, it was once a sellout. “I had the time of my life,” says Bartlett, misty-eyed.

If Bartlett has a message, it’s this: people will have to take accountability for his or her movements, paintings against long-term objectives and imagine in themselves; be sensible about their abilities, however remember the fact that few scenarios can’t be ameliorated via sheer effort. It isn’t a brand new message, echoing self-help tomes from Max Weber’s 1905 tract The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to Napoleon Hill’s 1937 private building handbook Think and Grow Rich. But Bartlett’s genius has been to replace the message by way of pithy social media graphics and search-engine-optimised YouTube movies for the eroded consideration span of a Twenty first-century target market.

If, every now and then, Bartlett’s message is contradictory – he urges other folks to imagine that they “are enough”, but additionally to spot and paintings on their weaknesses – his message of incessant self-improvement falls on receptive ears. His younger fanatics aspire to “financial freedom” – the trending euphemism in startup circles for buying wealthy – and having a powerful private logo, like their hero. They view skilled careers, got after years of research, as relics of the previous; being a serial entrepreneur is the objective. Bartlett perspectives college as a money-wasting racket, however he recognizes: “Had I been smart enough to be a doctor, I think my views of the education system would be different.”

Fans concentrate to The Diary of a CEO to glean trade recommendation from influencers reminiscent of Hague, a former Love Island contestant who advised Bartlett in January that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day”, prompting a social media firestorm. The backlash shocked Bartlett, for the reason that broader sentiment she articulated – which distils Twenty first-century hustle tradition – has been uttered time and again through visitors on his podcast and, to some degree, through Bartlett. But he additionally questions this concept. “It’s nuanced,” he says. “Do I think hard work matters? Yes. Do I think hard work at the expense of your own health and wellbeing is a good idea? No. Do I think you should just endlessly hustle, hustle, hustle to become a successful entrepreneur? No.”

He tells me that he’s striving for “balance” in his existence and isn’t materialistic; as evidence, he presentations me his rusting ear studs. “Five pounds from Topman.” His final goal is to “do my own potential justice”. But isn’t all this never-ending private building simply onerous? Why can’t we simply be our mediocre, unevolved selves? “From what I’ve seen, without a sense of purpose, humans aren’t typically very happy,” he says. I inform him that I don’t set private objectives. He is flabbergasted. Surely I will have to have some, he begs. Reluctantly, I concede that I wish to purchase a space in the future. He laughs, exultant.

Steven Bartlett on Dragons’ Den
Hot seat … Bartlett on Dragons’ Den. Photograph: BBC

Bartlett’s critics declare that, for all his grandiose self-mythologising, he’s imprecise on the main points of the way precisely he turned into a success, who prefer to cover in the back of unoriginal aphorisms. In an excoriating New Statesman article in March, Bartlett was once described as “more of a bluffer than a prodigy”. The article concluded that Bartlett “got lucky” through founding Social Chain at a time when social media advertising and marketing was once starting off and that the trade recommendation presented in Happy Sexy Millionaire is generic and unhelpful. A skinny smile twitches throughout Bartlett’s lips after I ask him concerning the write-up, which he learn. “I’m sure there was a lot of luck involved in my journey,” he responds.

He insists Happy Sexy Millionaire was once now not meant as a trade handbook. “In different forums, I can give business advice,” he says. “If I’m in the boardroom talking about how to scale, or technical aspects of how to raise a round, or how to honour investors, I can do that … Do I talk about that on my social media channels or in my podcasts in detail? No.”

I recommend that his fanatics would possibly welcome specifics about how he landed large purchasers at Social Chain after which serviced their accounts. “I can go and get you my laptop and show you those pieces of work,” Bartlett provides, animated. “They are 200-page insight pieces into customer engagement, customer demographics, where customers are, how they behave.”

Despite the complaint, Bartlett obviously is aware of what he’s speaking about in the case of trade. His observations in Dragons’ Den are astute; his interviews on The Diary of a CEO, with executives specifically, are incessantly very good.

He is much less sure-footed with reference to difficult arguable visitors. In his interview with Hague, who had not too long ago been introduced because the ingenious director of the fast-fashion logo Pretty Little Thing, he failed to invite her about accusations of illegally low wages being paid within the provide chain of Pretty Little Thing’s guardian corporate, Boohoo. “I didn’t know whether she was the person to talk on that topic,” he says.

I think that the wider factor is person who plagues the business normally. A blockbuster podcast wishes high-profile visitors, however they might not be prepared to post themselves to a grilling. This would possibly topic much less when Bartlett is interviewing trade executives or pop stars, however it does topic when he’s faced with a media-trained baby-kisser, reminiscent of Hancock, or a certified contrarian, reminiscent of Morgan.

In their dialogue, Bartlett requested the previous well being secretary: “One of the decisions that was made, and ultimately criticised, was this whole care home stuff – what’s your view on that?” Hancock introduced right into a defence of his coverage of discharging untested Covid sufferers into care properties, later dominated illegal, {that a} extra tough interviewer would have dismantled in mins. Does Bartlett assume he driven Hancock exhausting sufficient? “Honestly, I did my best,” he says. “I don’t consider myself to be a journalist.”

His selections to e book Morgan, in addition to the creator Jordan Peterson, whose paintings is cherished through males’s rights activists, have proved contentious. “I don’t ever want to get to a situation where we don’t have conversations with those who we disagree with,” he says. “Because I think much of our progress as a people has come from breaking our echo chambers and having difficult, uncomfortable conversations and being willing to listen.”

But those conversations weren’t in particular tough or uncomfortable. He thanked Peterson for converting his existence and allowed Morgan to move on a in large part uninterrupted rant about cancel tradition, shield his bullying of the Duchess of Sussex and falsely place himself as a trans best friend. Does he settle for that, through reserving such visitors, he sanitises their perspectives for a much wider target market? “I don’t know if it’s sanitising their views,” he says. “You can have a conversation with me and not agree with everything I live by and stand for.”

Bartlett continues to be discovering his toes as an interviewer, in spite of the runaway good fortune of The Diary of a CEO. “I have moments where, afterwards, I say: ‘I wish I had challenged that person more,’” he says. As we’re wrapping up, he asks me for comments on what he will have to be doing higher. I recommend he may just move tougher on other folks. Ever the self-optimiser, Bartlett seems to imagine my proposition. Perhaps he’s a Paxman within the making.

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