Imagine leading the UK’s largest influencer marketing agency, employing a team of 50+ creatives, and being one of the most powerful influencers on social media – all by the age of 23. For Steve Bartlett, founder and CEO of Social Chain, that’s an everyday reality.
Currently running one of the most talked about companies of 2015, Steve has followed his own path and worked to build his digital empire ever since dropping out of uni and starting his first business aged 18. Now a driven advocate for entrepreneurship, we caught up with Steve to learn more about how he has grown his influence.
Getting To Know Steve
You’ve obviously got this drive to spot opportunity and make things happen. When you were growing up, what values were instilled in you?
Being a nice person, hard work, and the thought that whatever you’re going to be is controlled by you. My parents were always hardworking and often out of the house, so I gained a sense of independence and responsibility early on.
This gave me what’s known as an ‘internal locus of control’ where you recognise that you have control over what you achieve, rather than being controlled by luck or chance. That does of course mean that everything is on me; if things go wrong, that’s on me. But equally, if things go well, that’s down to me too.
“Everything is on me; if things go wrong, that’s on me. But equally, if things go well, that’s down to me too.”
Did you always know that you wanted to start your own business and become an entrepreneur?
If you’d asked me at 16 what I wanted to do, I’d have said I wanted to own or manage a big business – though I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was, or what the process was for running a company.
When I was 16 and 17, I started out by running an events business in South-West England, although it wasn’t set up as a company. Essentially these events were for anyone under 18 – largely organised through Facebook, when getting an invite actually meant something.
What was your motivation?
There weren’t many events around for under 18’s, and at the time, I was that age and wanted the events to exist. So I came along and filled that space. I thought, ‘If I do this, not only can I make money, but I can enjoy the events myself.’ And it did make good money.
At the last event I ever threw, aged 17, everyone paid about £10 to get in. So at the end of the night I was handed this big bag of money, which I took back to my hotel and just laid out on the bed. It came to about £15,000.
“I’d built something. It was big and having an impact. There was nothing like realising ‘I did that’… knowing that there’s nothing stopping me between having an idea, and making it happen.”
How would you say you approach things, what drives you?
I would definitely say there’s an element of ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ driving what I do. That was one of the first and most important lessons to learn.
For example, when I was in sixth form, I noticed the girls wanted to pick out a vending machine for us. I overheard that it would cost about £4000, so I went and emailed all the vending machine companies I could find. A few hours later, a teacher pulled me out of class and said there was someone to see me; it turned out that the CEO of a coffee machine company had seen my message, was willing to give the school coffee machines for free, and that the school would earn back 20% profit from the machines. That’s still in place at my school today.
‘There’s nothing to lose by just asking for something. If they say no you’re back where you started, but if they say yes, you’ve taken a step forward… And most of the time people would say yes.’
Saying all that, you were eventually expelled from school. How did you go from that, to uni, to starting your first business; WallPark?
I never went to school. I just didn’t go. Fundamentally, I wasn’t interested. And when I’m not interested in something I can’t apply myself to it. Eventually I was told that my attendance was so low, I couldn’t stay.
I still did my exams. But I knew I wasn’t going to get the grades. So really I was betting and hoping that if you’re good enough, you don’t need grades. I still had that drive and ambition. But nobody was telling me that even if you get bad grades, you can still be really successful and don’t need to aim lower. I wish someone had said that to me at the time. That’s why I do so many talks at schools and universities today. I might be speaking to another Steve Bartlett.
As for uni, my choices were fairly limited. I knew whatever degree I got would be so bad anyway, that it was almost a mark on my record. But I went to Manchester Met; well, I went to one lecture. I did attend a more practical business class a few times, which is where I got the idea for WallPark. And then I dropped out of uni to do it.
“I was betting and hoping that if you’re good enough, you don’t need grades… I wish someone had said that to me at the time.”
You went through some very difficult times on the road to establishing WallPark…
My mum didn’t speak to me for a very long time after I dropped out of uni. She dropped out of school herself aged five in Africa; education is everything to her. She didn’t understand that I was starting a business on the Internet and doesn’t understand what the Internet is, so she told my family not to contact me until I had gone back to education. I understand why she did it, but it didn’t deter me from following what I wanted to do at all.
I set up WallPark, essentially an online student noticeboard, after I noticed a lot of student posters. It was 2013, and I thought that really, these things should be online. There are so many students in Manchester, there needed to be a way to share information between them. And so the idea was born.
I went through total poverty at this point. I was shoplifting pizzas and leftovers, even sleeping on a bench at one point. I got a one-way ticket to London to speak about WallPark once, then had to stay with no way back. I took a lot of call centre jobs; all for a month at a time just to get the paycheck, before leaving to focus on WallPark. Sometimes I got jobs just to use their WiFi to build my site – until I was found out.
Throughout this time, did you have full confidence and faith in WallPark, or did you worry about your state of affairs?
Never. I was as happy then as I am now. I never worried, ever. It was just a moment, a phase, a part of the story. I never thought ‘but what if you’re wrong’. It just never crossed my mind.
I used LinkedIn to find investors – even though I didn’t really know what LinkedIn or investors really were. I just knew I need to raise money, somehow. From there I built a team; Googling to find the people I needed. From the experience of building and marketing WallPark, I gained the knowledge I needed to start Social Chain.
“I never thought ‘but what if you’re wrong’. It never crossed my mind.”
What was the thought process behind leaving WallPark, and starting Social Chain?
To make a business successful, it’s crucial to understand the audience. With WallPark I looked at what the student audience cared about, where they lived online, and made sure WallPark was active there to drive traffic. I knew one day I wanted to monetize WallPark by putting brands on it, and all our traffic was coming from social media. So I just jumped ahead and thought ‘why not just put the brands on social?’ – that’s how the idea for Social Chain began.
I resigned from WallPark in December 2013, then went round the world as a social consultant. I was driving results for a number of businesses, BeBo for example, and received multiple offers to start a business. To begin with I declined, because I was 21/ 22, had been running a business since I was 17, and was enjoying the freedom. But eventually consulting wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to run a business, build great things and have an impact. So I gave consulting up and returned to the idea of Social Chain. The proof of concept was already there; influencer marketing was something we were already seeing early success with at WallPark.
When Social Chain began, we already owned about 50 of the biggest influential student pages with a reach of millions. Me and Dom (who started the page ‘Student Problems’, and co-founded Social Chain) saw over 2 million downloads on our first campaign.
“I’m a great believer in starting with a fundamental understanding and building from there.”
How did you make Social Chain a success?
Social Chain is successful because of its social reach and influence. With no overheads, it was profitable from day one. To start out, we rounded up and aligned all these successful social media pages; their combined reach brought powerful social influence, which brands can leverage for promotion. With our additional knowledge and data of how audiences are active on social media, we can target the most accurate promotional messaging to the right people, in the right places. Now, some of our biggest clients include Universal, Microsoft, Puma, ITV, ASOS – lots of names across different sectors.
What is the single most important decision you’ve made that has contributed to your success?
I’d say it would be deciding early on that I didn’t need to follow the traditional path of uni and getting a job to be successful. Going it alone was the most important decision I’ve ever made.
“I think being nice to people is very important. Be nice!”
Rebel Wrap Up
How do you balance creativity with entrepreneurship?
Everything we do, from how we hire to how we pitch, market, or find solutions to problems, is a reflection of our creativity and our determination to find the best solution to our problems.
One of my core missions is to re-imagine conventional wisdom, and not accept the status quo. If you’re going to succeed, you need to build a business creatively and innovatively.
“One of my core missions is to re-imagine conventional wisdom, and not accept the status quo.”
If you could go back to any point in your life and have one hour with your past self, where would you go, and what would you say?
I’d go back to one of those lowest moments and let myself know: ‘You’re going to get past this, it’s going to work out.” I’d probably go back to the moment when I was denied a business bank account, and couldn’t see how I could proceed forward.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received, and how has it positively affected you?
Someone told me once that happiness is a choice and at the time I didn’t believe them. But now I know it’s true, that happiness is down to perception. It’s in your head, and you alone can influence your outlook and make it heaven or hell.
“Next time you think ‘there’s no way past this situation’ remember situations where you’ve overcome difficulty before. There’s always a way past.”