How Steven Bartlett went from dropout to youngest ever Dragons’ Den investor – The Guardian

The entrepreneur was a millionaire by 23 and says he will bring a new perspective to the BBC show
It’s been 10 years since Steven Bartlett unsuccessfully applied to be a contestant on Dragons’ Den. Since then a lot has changed. The school dropout, who once stole food from corner shops and foraged for loose change to keep his hunger at bay, went on to start his own company from his bedroom and was a millionaire by age 23.
Bartlett will be the youngest ever investor – or “Dragon” – on the BBC’s hit series when it returns on Thursday. But pay attention and you’ll see him everywhere – whether it’s debates on daytime television, motivational quotes on Instagram or on his podcast, the Diary of a CEO, which has consistently topped business charts for the past year.
Joining the show is a privilege and a responsibility for Bartlett, who hopes young people from less privileged backgrounds like his, especially minorities who don’t always see themselves reflected in certain programmes or industries, will feel enabled.
“Dragons’ Den was the only window I had into business from 12 years old,” he said. “It’s like the first time you go to New York City after seeing it in films for your entire life. But I understand what I bring. A new perspective from a new era of business.
“I feel a responsibility because there’s never been a black, young Dragon on the show. The most powerful role models, of course, are those that are most relatable.”
Bartlett was born in Botswana to a Nigerian mum and a British dad. His mum left school aged seven and can’t read or write, his dad was a structural engineer and “very, very smart”. The family (he is the youngest of four siblings) moved to Plymouth, Devon, where they “struggled financially in a nice, white, middle-class area”, something he expands upon in his bestselling book, Happy Sexy Millionaire. That feeling of otherness, of not having “the nice things other people had”, drove him.
“I learned that if I was to have anything, it wasn’t going to be left for me under the Christmas tree, it was going to be a direct consequence of my own actions.”
He was an insecure boy who struggled in school, barely scraping through GCSEs and A-levels. His attention, he says, was focused elsewhere – from organising school trips to brokering deals with vending machine companies and taking a cut. It was clear from a young age that his interest and talents lay in the world of entrepreneurship.
So it wasn’t entirely surprising that he dropped out of his course in business management at Manchester Metropolitan University after just one lecture. He says he looked around the room, full of hungover students and a lecturer handing out felt-tip pens, and “realised this wasn’t going to take me to where I needed to go”.
He has vociferous opinions of the education system, which he calls a “propped up scam” held together by a number of stakeholders, none of which are incentivised to help young people nurture their talents and work towards what they’re good at.
“You’ve got the employment world that requires a 2:2 for jobs. You’ve got the university who are getting paid to drag you in and keep costs low, and then you’ve got the schools, which are ranked by grades. It’s an archaic system that hasn’t moved with the modern world fast enough. Information is almost redundant by the time universities publish their textbooks. There’s probably not that many that have been written about blockchain, but we know it’s a pivotal part of our future.”
Bartlett’s first proper registered business at 18 years old – a marketing agency called Social Chain – now valued at $600m.
He talks much of the importance of following your internal voice and knowing your purpose, a thread that runs through the work of contemporary self-help gurus, including his most recent podcast guest, Jordan Peterson.
“I’m really bad at doing things I don’t want to do. If you’re fortunate and take the right steps, that culminates in a life where you’re doing a lot of things you do want to do.”
This explains why he left Social Chain in 2020 to pursue new projects, including Thirdweb, a company that creates blockchain-based applications, and Flight Story, a marketing platform. In the latter part of last year, he was also listed as number six in the UK’s black power list alongside Marcus Rashford and Michaela Coel.
“Quitting has been demonised in our society. It’s associated with being weak. But it’s the incredibly important thing you have to do before you start the next thing.”
His key advice for creating a successful business is being unromantic about your hypothesis. After all, Jeff Bezos originally looked to create an online bookstore.
This, and other lessons about business life, were imparted through interviewing other entrepreneurs and business leaders. Though he imagined they’d be incredibly unique, he says he discovered that most of his guests are actually very similar.
“They’re all affected by the same anxieties. One thing that happened to them on the playground might steer the course of their life. Sometimes your curses become your blessings and vice versa. Most of the time, having a really shitty childhood is the reason why my guests end up being really remarkable people in their later life.”

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