Q & A with ASOS.com’s Nick Robertson

The founder of AIM-listed online fashion retailer ASOS reveals where it all started and how he's looking to grow

Following a number of successful ventures, Nick Robertson launched AsSeenOnScreen in 2000, in an attempt to cash in on the public’s desire for clothes worn by celebrities.

Renamed ASOS in July 2003, Robertson’s website has received plenty of media attention and, importantly, a flood of buyers. The site now sells jewellery and make up alongside the clothes of the stars.

The entrepreneur spoke exclusively to Startups.co.uk.

Have you always had an entrepreneurial streak?

Yes, we set up Entertainment Marketing (which provides product placement and sponsorship services to advertisers) in 1996 and I’ve always to do this, I have a brother who’s very entrepreneurial and my great-grandfather being Austin Reed may have had something to do with it!

What first gave you the idea to start up ASOS?

It was a bit around the houses really. Entertainment Marketing was a product placement business, where we were being paid by big brands to associate them with celebrities. The idea spun out of that, but it was fashion, it was everything else, television programmes, films and so on.

We read a stat back in 1999 that when the programme Friends aired, NBC got 4,000 calls about some standard lamp in one of their apartments asking where it could be purchased. So that was the real idea behind the business.

Anything that gets exposure in a TV programme or film creates desire among the public, so we based the shop around that. It wasn’t until our first buyer came in, who was a fashion buyer, that we were pushed in that direction.

Fashion is where we get the most returns for the business. Rather than saying here’s a standard top, we can say here’s a top that Jennifer Aniston wore in Friends.

Was ASOS always going to be an online business?

Absolutely, it was always going to be an online business, because of the amount of products that came up after being on TV, it needed to serve that function. Our expertise wasn’t in normal on the high street, so this was more comfortable for us.

How have you developed the site since you started it up?

It’s grown naturally. It looks different, we’re constantly changing and developing it, but fundamentally it’s grown out from that proposition. All we’ve done it accelerated that by getting in new buyers and new areas of expertise.

Very recently we’ve had our jewellery and beauty buyers come in. We originally relied on one or two buyers buying across the board, but now we’ve been able to specialise.

How have you been able to attract the brands to the site?

It’s been an ongoing process. On day one, we weren’t dealing with the big brands and developers because they didn’t want to deal with us. Our reputation and those relationships have got bigger over the past four-and-a-half years to the point where the big brands do want to deal us – we’ve just signed an exclusive Miss Sixty deal.

You can’t just open a shop door and expect them to come through, it’s not going to happen like that, you need to build a reputation. You need to be financially sound because brands are precious about where they sit and what they sit next to.

Obviously, we don’t be too broad, because we want to keep our target market, but for the 18-24 consumer, we want to be the fashion and beauty destination store in the UK.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

To be honest, there’s so many components to the whole business. I’ve been in the warehouse today, so that’s all the logistics of the business that you have you start from scratch. There’s customer care, should this be in or out, returns, the whole IT side, the buying, the marketing – it’s all been a huge learning curve across every facet of the business. Nothing existed before, we had to create it.

What advice would you give to those wanting to start up a web-based business?

Really just to persevere. If you firmly believe in it, it will start small but gradually that little something will get there.

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