The early pioneer
Steve Bartlett was an early pioneer in social media, founding the Social Chain at just 20 years old. The business now has an impressive roster of blue-chip clients and revenues in excess of $200m.
Steve Bartlett was an early pioneer in social media, founding the Social Chain at just 20 years old. The business now has an impressive roster of blue chip clients and revenues of $200m+.
Steve Bartlett never saw eye to eye with academic institutions. His teachers repeatedly tried to expel him from school and his university career only lasted a matter of months. “I just didn’t find any of it very interesting!” he admits.
With hindsight, his path was set early – by 14, he was running his own events business in the southwest, even organising trips for his school. By the time he was into his late teens, Steve had already learned many of the lessons it often takes entrepreneurs years to master: the importance of learning from failure, how to tell a good story and how to inspire.
He felt being young was a notable advantage. “No-one has any expectations of you when you’re young. You start out as a two out of ten. If you are well-spoken and articulate, you move to an eight out of ten quite quickly. It’s the difference between expectations and reality.”
That said, when he dropped out of university, it was without any grand vision, just a sense that he should be doing something different. Steve knew he wanted to do something in business and recognised the emerging power of social media. He had an idea to build a website to connect students. It was his first business, aimed at 18-20 year olds, a platform where students from the same cities could connect, to share anything from advertising an event to selling textbooks – he calls it “a Gumtree for students”.
In an attempt to drive traffic, Steve turned to social media. He stumbled on a popular Twitter page aimed at students run by Dominic McGregor. The pair teamed up, merging their platforms and founding the Social Chain.
"I saw the potential of social media to be used for extraordinary things at a time when people didn’t really understand it. It was a fascinating story of kids influencing the world in areas like media and ecommerce.”
Steve soon discovered he was adept at public-speaking and selling the vision of the business. He explains: “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong but we had a lot of perseverance and a very talented group of team members. They all loved working together. We didn’t read the book on running a business but we were all great friends. We felt this energy and it was unique.”
The first client was a gaming app called Tippy Tap. They propelled it to the top of Apple’s App Store charts and knew they were onto something. Within a couple of years, the group was working with blue-chip brands such as Spotify, Microsoft, Comedy Central, 20th Century Fox, P&G, Puma, Just Eat and Hungry House. They were winning awards, including ‘Social Media Agency Of The Year’ from the Network Awards and ‘Best Large Agency’ at the Agency Awards.
The business retained its unique culture. They had food on site and a well-stocked bar. Employees could sleep upstairs. Steve says: “We designed our office to make it possible to do the most forward-thinking, innovative work. We were doing things differently and it was exciting.”
Six years later, the company had grown to more than 750 staff with revenues over $200 million . The group had expanded internationally and brought in outside funding. It had also made the largest acquisition in its history, taking a 51% stake in A4D Inc, a Southern Californian digital performance marketing agency. For Steve, it was time to move on to other challenges.
He is keen that his next option should have a social purpose, something that makes a change for the better. "I’m exploring options in the education field, which is close to my heart. I was so disappointed with my education. I believe there should be some kind of alternative to university.” Mental health would be another area of interest.
What does he believe has helped him achieve so much at such a young age? “Self-belief is vital, believing that you’re capable of extraordinary things. You need to be articulate and to be able to sell your thinking. This is a logical extension of self-belief. You also need to be logical, to go back to first principles. Finally, I am obsessed with truth and logic and it is my default to think from first principles. If you don’t think from first principles, you never create anything new. It’s why Elon Musk could create Tesla.”
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