Steven Bartlett, the 23-year-old co-founder of social media marketing agency Social Chain, has built a major business employing lots of people in just a year and a half - how on earth did he do that?
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Two years ago Social Chain didn't exist. Today it's a top social marketing agency looking after the accounts of some of the world's biggest brands. It employs dozens of people and has multiple offices, including its Manchester headquarters.
The business' speciality is 'The Thunderclap' in which it posts on its large Twitter accounts to promote target brands, in doing so making them trend on the social network and promoting further discussion. Here co-founder Steven Bartlett - still fresh out of university - accounts for the business' overnight success.
So what's the business again?
We’re a marketing agency communicating our messages through social media. We’ve built up a social platform where we can reach a mass audience as we control over 200 social media pages, including Twitter accounts Fitness Motivation, British Logic and Primary School Problems.
This gives us the ability to essentially control what gets talked about online and is a powerful tool for getting a message, image or video seen by the masses all at once. We’ve worked with some of the biggest brands across the UK and Europe including Spotify, Microsoft, Hungry House, Just Eat, Puma, Topman and Asos to name a few.
As you would expect, Social Chain's HQ has a slide
How did Social Chain come about?
The idea came about whilst I was trying to promote my first business in 2014, Wallpark which I set up after dropping out of university. This was a virtual wall where students could connect in the same city and share anything from advertising a sporting event to selling old uni textbooks.
Whilst looking for methods of marketing Wallpark I came across a twitter account called Student Problems which posted content that was funny and relatable and in return amassed thousands of followers which was run by Dominic McGregor, later to become co-founder of Social Chain.
I contacted Dom to discuss how his page and thousands of other like his could be used as a conduit to connect an audience with a brand.
We realized that the reason people followed and engaged with these pages was for the great content, so if there was a way a brand’s message could be seamlessly woven into a page, the engagement and following should not suffer. This was the inception of Social Chain.
After selling Wallpark our first client was an app called Tippy Tap. We launched the campaign into an unknown space and achieved unimaginable results. Tippy Tap sat number one in the app store for weeks and even made the BBC headlines. It was then I knew we were on to something very special; a real break through moment for Social Chain.
How have you grown in such a short space of time?
Due to the increase in demand for our service and overall shift in budgets from traditional to social media, we have been able to achieve significant year-on-year growth, already achieving the entire annual turnover of 2015 in a few months of 2016.
HuffPost Business also recently predicted some pretty huge influencer marketing trends for 2016. They estimate influencer marketing will climb to 50% of digital marketing budgets for online shopper marketers, taking the place of more traditional (and disruptive) forms of media like display advertising.
The staffing levels at SC has increased to over 40 people working from our Manchester HQ, 15+ external workers, the opening of our German HQ in Berlin with MD and small team of 3 to date, and the expansion of our office space in our Manchester HQ.
Steve with co-founder Dom (left) and German MD Matthias
Our client base has developed from working with SMBs, especially apps in this ever-changing landscape, to working with some of the biggest agencies and brands in the world, most notably, we are working on several of the Proctor & Gamble brands such as Head & Shoulders, Aussie Hair alongside Eurosport, UFC, Huawei, Deliveroo, PUMA, Boohoo, highlighting the expansion across several key verticals.
Paint a picture of your market sector
The social media space in the digital landscape is very hard to break into as there is a significant monopoly for companies like Social Chain who own and manage the majority of the largest social media communities.
As a result, new, engaged communities are either bought or brought into the SC network incorporating the hiring of the talented social media creative behind the community as their knowledge is arguably more valuable than the social asset itself.
The big opportunity for SC comes in international expansion in which we have already began to replicate the UK model across Europe and the American market is on the near horizon.
Have you experienced any problems?
We’ve faced a number of challenges since our journey began in November 2014, particularly in terms of scaling and restructuring due to the speed in which the company has grown.
Because SC has grown so quickly, it’s meant that I’ve pretty much had to learn on the job which is fine, however, I guess that goes hand in hand with making mistakes on the job. How do I over come them? By not making these mistakes twice.
Have you done much marketing yourselves?
I love public speaking so talking at big marketing conferences has been a great way to communicate our brand and what we do here at Social Chain.
Being at the forefront of the social media and marketing industry, we regard ourselves to be opinion formers through demonstrating thought leadership, not forgetting traditional PR and media relations.
Steven uses traditional marketing methods, like public speaking, to promote the business
We’re actually working on creating our own online platform Scribe, which will essentially be one big social media and marketing blog where we will collectively share all our own experiences, knowledge and opinions.
What the worst/best thing about running your own business?
Because running your own business is non-stop, there’s no way I can ever really turn off. This means the hardest thing for myself is achieving a heathy work-life balance which is something I’m always aware of.
Another challenging aspect is having to take responsibility for all the problems the company or anyone in the company comes across. Essentially, every problem is our problem so making time for everyone and everything can be very difficult.
I’d say the best thing about running my own business is having freedom of choice, even if it’s just being able to wear what I want. From a business perspective, one of the main benefits is having no obstacles in the way of your ideas, being capable of building solutions, taking on new challenges and being able to build a culture in which you would want to work in.
What one thing would you change about doing business in the UK?
The one thing I would change about doing business in the UK would be the corporation tax as it is significantly higher than other European markets. Over recent years, this has led to thriving UK businesses moving certain aspects of the business abroad or even completely relocating which will continue to harm the UK economy if we don't introduce fairer tax amounts.
What is your biggest mistake?
My biggest mistakes probably go hand in hand with our biggest successes, and by this I mean hiring the wrong people but also hiring the right people. The success of the company goes back to the great team and all their hard work, making these recruitment decisions vital to the growth.
What sets your business apart from the rest and how have you nurtured that point of difference?
What makes Social Chain unique is the fact that we’re probably one of the biggest media owners in Europe in terms of Social Media. We have over 220,000,000 people in our Social media network across over 300 social media pages making us one of the biggest influencer marketing agencies in Europe setting us apart from the rest.
We’re always looking to work with new influencers and build our reach whilst ensuring all the campaigns we work on are targeted, maintaining our point of difference.
Louie, the all-important Social Chain mascot
How do you look after your staff?
We’re quite lucky in the fact that we get a lot of interest in working at Social Chain. Due to this, applicants go the extra mile to understand our business and how they might add value to the company.
I hate to sound cliché but we are a close team, and we inspire each other everyday. Everyone at Social Chain is included into the company WhatsApp chat, called ‘Ever-Changing Landscape’ where we all share interesting articles, the latest industry news and our individual findings, making sure all voices are heard by the whole team.
I don’t really give the staff incentives to work hard, however good work is encouraged by the company culture Dom and I have built.
There are many perks of working at Social Chain, for example the fully stocked bar and ping-pong table in our head office, day trips out, birthday presents, no limits to how much holiday you can take and lots of support in personal development.
How do you rate government support for growing businesses and why?
There are lots of funds available but there needs to be a lot more communication of what is available to make these funds accessible for young, exciting companies to truly make a difference and accelerate their growth in line with how fast technology is advancing right now.
People are the most important ingredient of any business
What are your top three tips for people starting a business today?
My top three tips for people starting a business today are:
Put social media first. Just think about the way your dad consumes content in comparison to the way your little brother might consume it. Social media is the new media, it’s the media of the future, so if you’re wanting to build a company for the future, put your social media first.
Focus on the numbers. Keep track of all the finances; what’s coming in and what’s going out. Money is the fuel for the business and without having a sufficient amount of money to sustain yourself you won’t have a business.
Think big from the start. Even if you don’t necessarily believe it, thinking bigger will help you to get better valuations etc. for your business, and help you set goals to work towards. If I could go back and give my younger self a tip, I’d definitely tell him to think bigger.