In the middle of the night on the Tuesday between Christmas and New Year, I was lying on my bathroom floor sincerely wondering whether I was about to die. It was clear that I had food poisoning, but I was retching every 45 minutes. I was cold, then hot and shaking, with none of the usual in-between temporary relief. It had been raging for hours, without a moment of respite.
I knew it was probably nothing serious, but I was panicking and needed a distraction. With my head glued to the bathmat, I opened the YouTube app on my phone and quickly clicked on the first suggested video that appeared: the influencer Molly-Mae Hague’s interview on The Diary of a CEO.
The Diary of a CEO is a podcast (that is also filmed and uploaded to YouTube) in which a series of guests from the worlds of sport, social media, books and business talk about how they succeeded. Recent guests have included the comedian Jimmy Carr, the self-help author Jay Shetty, the author and podcaster Elizabeth Day, and, at the end of February, the former health secretary Matt Hancock. Despite the big names, though, at the centre of the podcast’s marketing and branding is its host, Steven Bartlett. Bartlett, 29, is an investor and entrepreneur, and the former CEO of the social media marketing company Social Chain, which had a market valuation of more than €200m when it went public in 2019. His persona is cocky and smarmy, extolling the virtue of flouting convention. On his website he describes himself as being “widely considered one of Europe’s most talented and accomplished young entrepreneurs and philosophical thinkers”. (It struck me when watching his Molly-Mae interview — even through my illness — that he was more interested in sharing his thoughts than listening to hers.)
In the months leading up to that desperate night on which I clicked on the podcast, I had seen trickles of Bartlett online, noticing his self-aggrandising tweets go viral (he sometimes retweets people calling him a genius) and his Instagram posts — many of them screenshots of his own inspirational quote-style tweets — getting shared. Last year he also published his first book, Happy Sexy Millionaire, a business advice and self-help guide that was a Sunday Times bestseller. In it he promises to “dismantle the most popular, unaddressed lies about happiness” and replace them with “a practical set of scientifically proven and unconventional ideas”.
Since the Molly-Mae episode Bartlett has been inescapable. Her interview became mainstream news in early January when there was a backlash to her claim that anyone could be successful because “we all have the same 24 hours in a day”. There were tabloid news articles about the story, and Bartlett was spotted at a Pretty Little Thing fashion show — Molly-Mae is the brand’s creative director — wearing a T-shirt reading “24 HOURS”, stoking the controversy. The timing couldn’t have been better, since Bartlett was simultaneously getting coverage in glossy magazines for his debut as an investor on the BBC reality series Dragons’ Den.
Bartlett seems to be experiencing the biggest boom of his career, solidifying himself as a millennial Robert Kiyosaki or a social media-savvy Alan Sugar. He’s not just successful, but famous for his expertise. And yet, despite the accolades and his increasing public presence as a voice for modern business, he is, in reality, more of a bluffer than a prodigy — an influencer and motivational speaker masquerading as a marketing genius.
Despite making his name by constructing successful businesses, Bartlett’s actual business knowledge is tricky to locate. He spends little time speaking publicly about his methods or approach, and instead focuses almost all of his energy on sharing his inspiring backstory. He was born in Botswana and moved as a child to south-west England, where he was mostly raised by his mother and lived in “relative poverty”. He was the only black student at his all-white school, where he ran several small money-making schemes (including charging kids to go to his birthday parties) before getting kicked out at 17 for poor attendance. He got into university in Manchester (how this was achieved despite leaving school early is not clear) but dropped out after a single lecture, then lived on pennies and dumpster diving until he founded a student-focused online message board, Wallpark, which he left to create Social Chain.
His story does not have to be pulled together in bits and pieces from various profiles. Bartlett has told it countless times to interviewers, live audiences and on his social media accounts. On his YouTube channel he has repeatedly charted his life through multiple series about becoming a CEO, one called “Everyday Steve” and another called “An Entrepreneur’s Journey”, where this story is the bulk of the narrative. Rarely are the mechanics of running a business elucidated. Bartlett has done two TEDx talks, one in 2013 on Wallpark and one in 2016 on Social Chain. In both he spends more time reciting his personal success story than explaining what he or his companies actually do.
Of course, we all only have one life and it’s fair enough to share it. But Bartlett’s self-mythologising is prolific, the kind you’d expect from someone with ten times his success and fame. Throughout all of his ventures, this eagerness to be treated more like a celebrity than a guiding voice in business shines through. On his YouTube channel you can find what looks like an attempt at becoming a social media star, with numerous vlogs and clickbait-y business-themed videos with titles such as “REVEALED: HOW TO BE A MILLIONAIRE BEFORE YOU’RE 25” and “THE SECRET TO MAKING IT BIG”. Even The Diary of a CEO began not as an interview show but, as the name indicates, a podcast of Bartlett’s own musings on his life, the world and social media.
When he does try to give business advice it falls flat, leaning on clichés and well-worn paradigms (despite Bartlett’s claim to be throwing out the conventional rulebook, which is a business convention in and of itself). This is nowhere more apparent than in Happy Sexy Millionaire, which instead of offering valuable guidance to aspiring entrepreneurs, resembles books by lifestyle influencers such as the Slumflower and Florence Given.
More than a quarter of the book is taken up by full-page inspirational quotes and infographics (by infographics I mean images of a marionette being held up by the Twitter bird and text next to up-and-down arrows that reads “WHEN EMOTIONS GO UP, DECISION-MAKING GOES DOWN”). He gives advice such as keeping a gratitude journal and to remember that “you are not what happened to you, you are how you chose to handle it”.
“I’m not into airy-fairy personal development bullshit,” he writes. “I promise you, I’m one of the most naturally sceptical, logic-seeking people you’re likely to meet.”
Throughout Happy Sexy Millionaire Bartlett gives advice that explicitly goes against the lessons of his own story, heavily focusing on the dangers of social media and the problems with aspiring to others’ material success, even though he made his money on Big Tech. He says “it’s going to take more than a motivational quote on Instagram” to be successful, despite his account blaring out this type of thing. At one point he even tells readers to “ignore the hustle porn gurus” and to “stop watching them on reality shows”. Much of the book is devoted to bragging about his wealth, his fitness and getaways to glamorous locations (in the book’s second paragraph he tells us he is sitting on a first-class flight). When he finally gets to his business advice, his tenets are: do engaging work, help others, do what you’re good at, don’t work with “arseholes” and have a work-life balance — perhaps the most ubiquitous work guidance today (and, again, contradicted by Bartlett saying he works constantly, often doing 11-hour days).
The question then arises: why would someone who has created a successful business, who brands himself as an inspiring entrepreneur, be so evasive about giving business advice? And when he does give it, why is it so bad? You need only look into Bartlett’s most successful business to find the answer. Social Chain is effectively a network of popular social media accounts — including meme pages and influencers — that Social Chain either owns outright or has a contract with. Brands can then pay Social Chain to get these accounts to post about their product or service. This was certainly ahead of the curve when the company was founded in the early 2010s but the idea is not particularly inspired or replicable, nor is it a sound basis on which to advise others given that it is now the most common form of social media marketing.
Bartlett, ostensibly, got lucky. He got somewhere first and, even though the world was already heading in that direction, he could claim it as his invention, crediting his unique outlook, hard work and grit. His words are ineffectual because they aren’t designed to help others, but to serve his growing vanity project, which, at its heart, appears to be driven by a glorious self-delusion about how he got here.
Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops
[See also: In modern day youth culture, conformity rules]