“Your success is not determined by how much money you raise”
Built and sold a company, struggled with alcohol and mental health and launched an investment firm – and he’s still under 30. Dominic McGregor co-founded the award-winning marketing agency behemoth Social Chain, boasting clients such as Apple, McDonald’s, BBC, and Boohoo.
Social Chain grew to a business worth over £300m with 700 staff. After exiting the business at the age of 27 and having gone through struggles of his own at the start, McGregor was certain he could assist founders in their business ventures by imparting his knowledge and experiences gained from working at Social Chain. He co-founded Fearless Adventures, a venture capital firm that provides funding and support to founder-led businesses.
We spoke to Dominic about developing his leadership style at a young age, tips to raise funding in a turbulent market, his sobriety and much more.
Watch our exclusive interview with Dominic McGregor below.
Could you give us an overview of your career?
In 2013, I was running a Twitter account called Student Problems. These were the days when you could message Rihanna or Stephen Fry on Twitter and they’d respond to you. However, people didn’t know if Twitter would stick around, or fade like Bebo and MySpace. I built a community around the things that I noticed in my life as a student, like how expensive cheese was, and the account grew to over 20,000 followers. Around this time, people started to realise that Twitter was here to stay, and it was the same time that I met my co-founder Steve (Steven Bartlett).
He was running a business called Wall Park, which was basically Gumtree for students. The first time we added a link from the Student Problems Twitter account to Wall Park, around 300 people went straight to the website. Steve had never seen more than 20 people on the website at a time, so we knew we had something. We started to build up social media assets, and eventually had a following of over 80 million users across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. That’s how Social Chain was born.
Those early days were fantastic because we were working with challenger brands, who needed to go against convention and make their product, and business as a whole, a little more sticky. As we scaled and worked with more multinationals, we drifted away from meaningful work. I exited Social Chain in 2021 and wanted to get back to those times – taking an idea as an entrepreneur, scaling it and having a meaningful impact on a business. Services is a horrible industry. I didn’t enjoy it, and I wanted to go into venture because I felt it was a much better way of working with someone.
One of the things we struggled with at Social Chain was short-termism. The churn in agencies is every two years because you’re expected to deliver results immediately. Going viral happens every day but it isn’t something you can recreate, it’s just a fluke. I set up Fearless Adventures because I wanted to build long-term relationships. We invest in companies and provide them with services across marketing, recruitment, tech fulfilment and trading to help companies scale.
You started Social Chain at a young age; how did you develop your leadership style?
The first couple of years for me were so destructive. I had no idea how to manage people. I had no idea how to deliver bad news. I had no idea how to give leadership, good direction, and be honest, and it really impacted me. I started to use alcohol as medication because I didn’t know what I was doing. My entire basis of getting respect was who could down a pint the fastest. When you start going from a scale-up business to something more meaningful, you’ve got to have more tools in your arsenal as a leader.
So sobriety was the biggest thing that helped me because it gave me purpose and confidence. Going from someone who’s drinking and really struggling with management to someone with a clear head and being able to make decisions and execute things gives you something that people really respect. When we first grew the company to 50 people, it had outgrown me massively. I was probably hindering it, rather than helping it and I needed to do something about that. As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to figure out the business, but you also got to figure out yourself.
You mentioned in other interviews that you were a ‘Yes Man’ at Social Chain and you struggled with delegation, what advice would you give to people who struggle with the same issue?
My advice would be that you’ve got to think about how you can actually get value. Your responsibility leader isn’t there to say yes to everyone, it should be to challenge everyone’s thinking. I didn’t see it that way and I let people walk all over me and dictate where things need to go. I didn’t have the confidence in myself to set the direction and challenge people because I was so young and naïve.
Have confidence in your authority, have confidence in your vision, and have confidence in what you’re trying to set out. In a lot of instances, you have to say, “No, you can’t do that, because this is the focus” etc. There’s so much ‘low-hanging fruit’ when you’re running a business, but you need to focus on the long term. If you try to take a shortcut, you’re never going to get to where you want, and I think that the responsibility of leaders is to remind people of that and make sure that everyone’s focusing on the big picture.
As part of Fearless Adventures, you’ve launched Fearless Academy which is a fully funded course to make education free for anyone who doesn’t have the means to be able to afford it. Why was this such an important part of the business that you wanted to start?
If you came to Social Chain and looked at 20 people’s CVs, none of them would ever get hired – including me. The best thing we could say on our CV at the time was that we’ve grown Instagram accounts to 50,000 followers. In any other walk of life, they never would have gotten a chance… ever. So it was always something that was really passionate for me because I saw what happens when you put together great people you brought together in a structure.
If you’re looking for a TikTok videographer, do you hire someone who’s got five years of experience in video editing, or do you hire an 18-year-old who does TikTok in the bedroom? You probably go with the videographer because he’s got experience. I saw a lot across the industry where people were making decisions, which were safe and less risky, but no one was there to make sure that these young people found jobs.
Fearless Academy is here to give people that experience. So, if someone wants to make a change from working at McDonald’s, retail, or manufacturing into digital, come to the academy, and we’ll teach you some of the basics over 12 weeks. We will also be able to get you a place with companies that want to hire and take risks on people who are new in the market.
What tips do you have for people looking to raise funding in a turbulent market?
Right now, you don’t want to be big and highly leveraged with debt. Right now, I think it’s a perfect time for opportunities to come. My advice would be to focus on value. We live in a world where you can get a Series A but that doesn’t mean you’ll get a Series B or Series C; you actually have to deliver. Your success is not determined by how much money you raise as it has been previously.
Every business model is different, but if you don’t have to depend on raising external capital and you can show your profitability and how you’re scaling, you’ll always find funding options. I’ve got some great friends who have done that. They run a business called Fever, one of the Spanish unicorns. They were a Social Chain client in 2015, and then they just went away and slowly built. When they did their first round, which was £110m from Goldman Sachs, it was because they figured out profitability. So, let’s not confuse raising money with success. I think maybe we’ve been speculating too much in the VC market.