‘Poverty inspired me’ – How Steven Bartlett went from nothing to owning one of the world’s biggest podcasts

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 16, 2024 7:01 AM EDT
Steven Bartlett. Photo credit: Steven Bartlett

Steven Bartlett is candid about his humble beginnings. He attributes the inadequacy he felt growing poor as the driving force in his life. “I wanted money, because my family didn’t have any,” he once said.

From the age of 10, Bartlett has been running commercial experiments – many of which have proved to be successful. One of such experiments, his podcast series The Diary of a CEO has grown to become Europe’s most downloaded business podcast. This is how Bartlett achieved this remarkable feat.

Bartlett was born in Botswana to a Nigerian mum and a British dad. His mother left school at seven and couldn’t read or write while his father was a structural engineer. The family moved to a middle-class area of Plymouth in southwest England, at the age of two. Growing up poor and Black in an all-white community, Bartlett often felt out of place. He began plotting how he would escape scarcity and make it in the world.

“At a young age, I learned that we didn’t have things, but I really wanted them. You make this connection that if I’m going to get things, whether it’s a nice pair of shoes or whatever, that’s going to be a direct consequence of something that I do – something that I sell or create,” Bartlett said about why he placed the onus to succeed upon himself.

By the time he was 16, Bartlett had started his first businesses in and around school with the students as his customers. He was brokering deals with vending machine companies, running school trips and organizing parties. However, entrepreneurship came at the cost of his academics. Bartlett was even expelled for having a very low attendance but was recalled because he made the school so much money.

It was at college that Bartlett finally realized that he wasn’t cut out for formal education. He dropped out of his course in business management at Manchester Metropolitan University after only one lecture. He started Wallpark, an online messaging board. He tried using traditional means of marketing such as flyers and posters to get people to visit his website, albeit unsuccessfully. Bartlett then tapped into a Facebook group for students and Wallpark received tremendous traffic. He had discovered the power of social media and was on the path to becoming an internet entrepreneur.

Bartlett went on an acquisition spree, buying every social media page he could lay his hands on. The channels he acquired were more valuable than Wallpark and so he closed that side of the business. Bartlett co-founded Social Chain, a social media marketing company to house his growing collection of channels. He leveraged the opportunities that online marketing presented at a time when many brands didn’t have social media pages.

Social Chain merged with German online retailer Lumaland in 2019 to become The Social Chain AG. It was listed on Xetra and the Düsseldorf Stock Exchange with a valuation of over $200 million. Bartlett left the company in 2020 to pursue opportunities in blockchain and biotech.

He went on to create private equity company Catena Capital and Thirdweb, a Web3 startup simplifying the process of building decentralized applications on the blockchain. Thirdweb raised $5 million in seed investment and an additional $24 million Series A funding round that valued the startup at $160 million. In 2023, Bartlett launched a $100 million Flight Story Fund to support diverse founders and high-growth startups. It invests in blockchain, biotech, health, commerce, technology, and space sectors.

Among Bartlett’s impressive repertoire of business ventures, his The Diary of a CEO podcast stands out. He created the series in 2017 with a $100 microphone plugged into his laptop. The podcast runs weekly and follows an interview-based approach. Bartlett hosts a variety of guests ranging from business leaders and public figures to celebrities. He has had former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, Monzo founder Tom Blomfield, and former One Direction singer Liam Payne, among others on the podcast.

When it came to covering production costs, Bartlett eschewed the traditional ways of monetizing a podcast. He decided to eliminate the middleman and directly contact five companies that he liked. He sent the CEOs of these companies a presentation showing why they should sponsor his podcast, audience growth projections and plans for the show. The podcast currently has three main sponsors — nutrition brand Huel, freelancer platform Fiverr and renewable energy product manufacturer Myenergi.

“It’s not often or typical that a creative or influencer goes and pitches themselves to a brand but I swear if you have the guts, skill, effort and hard work to do that, you can get amazing deals and deals that are authentic to you,” Bartlett on the importance of seeking opportunities.

Bartlett has leveraged viral success, an elaborate promotion strategy and a broad distribution network to create a preeminent brand. In 2021, The Diary of a CEO was Europe’s most downloaded business podcast. Bartlett now has more than five million YouTube subscribers and over 40 million monthly downloads across mine distribution partners. In 2023, the podcast was the most popular show in the UK on Apple podcasts and in the global top ten on Spotify.