Nick Robertson: ASOS

ASOS co-founder Nick Robertson reveals the celebrity-product inspiration behind the now famous fashion site

With nearly four million customers worldwide, if you don’t already know about ASOS, you soon will.

The online-only apparel business, best known for its young, fashion-forward collections, is the largest online fashion retailer in the UK.

However, despite the current popularity of the fashion site, ASOS started in 2000 as a portal for celebrity-linked furniture and products under the name As Seen On Screen.

The following decade has seen the business evolve into much more than just a fashion e-commerce site; it has become one of the defining brands of a generation. So, how did a man who left school with his tail between his legs create one of the most respected digital businesses in the world?

Cutting the cloth

With Austin Reed, founder of the eponymous British menswear retailer, as his great grandfather, you might think it obvious that Nick Robertson would enter the fashion industry; but in his early years it didn’t look as though Nick would follow in his footsteps.

The son of a high-flying advertising executive, Nick attended a £28,000-a-year private boarding school but described his school results as ‘diabolical’. After spending a couple of years as a ‘ski bum’, at age 20 he decided to follow his father into advertising and picked up a job as a media buyer for advertising agency Young & Rubicam in 1987.

It was here that Nick cut his teeth, developing a real understanding of consumer behaviour, which would underpin the rest of his career. After nearly four years with Young & Rubicam, he crossed over to work for rival agency Carat, but soon grew restless and frustrated at working for other people.

The first template

Having seen an opportunity to cash in on the popularity of cult television programmes such as Friends, Nick founded Entertainment Marketing with Quentin Griffiths in 1996. The marketing services business was among the first to work with advertisers to, for example, get Weetabix featured in Eastenders by offering the product as a free prop.

The business model, which relied on the power of celebrity to sell products, proved to be a success and Entertainment Marketing was soon attracting big-name clients including Carlsberg, Coca-Cola, Ford, Mars, Pepsi, Tetley and Samsung.

While Nick worked closely with the television and film industry over the next four years, the idea for a sideline business – As Seen On Screen – emerged. The idea was to create a website where viewers could source Meg Ryan’s coat in You’ve Got Mail or Jamie Oliver’s pestle and mortar in an episode of The Naked Chef – or else a very good knock-off.

Nick explains his inspiration: “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”, Nick says. “Anything that gets exposure in a film or TV programme creates desire among the public, so we based the shop around that.” But far from having visions of what ASOS has now become, in its earliest incarnation, the founders weren’t especially focused on clothing at all.

Finance and fashion

Leaving Entertainment Marketing behind, Nick and Quentin launched As Seen On Screen online in June 2000, just after the dot-com bubble had burst.

With the good fortune of having entrepreneurial families who were willing to back the venture, the pair raised a total of £2.4m in start-up capital and purchased a variety of celebrity-linked products to launch the business.

Although the full extent of the comedown from the dot-com boom was yet to become apparent, launching an online business in the mid-2000s was still a risky business. Yet the co-founders were undeterred. “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”, Nick says, highlighting the wide reach and fast turnover of e-commerce. While the founders had a wealth of business knowledge, Nick acknowledges that they had little background in consumer spending – something that would be crucial in making their business an online success.

So, one of their first hires was buyer Lorri Penn, whom they scouted from Arcadia – Sir Philip Green’s umbrella retail group, which includes Topshop and Dorothy Perkins. She believed deeply in the potential of focusing the business on fashion (rather than furniture and other goods) – and they trusted her judgement.

“It wasn’t until our first buyer came in, who was a fashion buyer, that we were pushed in that direction”, Nick says. “Fashion is where we got the most returns for the business. Rather than saying ‘here’s a standard top’, we could say ‘here’s a top that Jennifer Aniston wore in Friends’.”

The founders acknowledged customer demand, and shifted As Seen On Screen from a website for odd celebrity-linked products to a focused haven of fast fashion.

Targeted initially at 18-24-year-olds wishing to ‘steal’ an icon’s style, the company homed in on the popularity of starlets such as Kate Moss and Sienna Miller, selling replicas of their most-touted ensembles using smaller designers to supply the products. It was the right formula, and, with some strategic PR and affiliates, sales started to grow. In 2001, As Seen On Screen reached sales of £250,000. ASOS as we know it today was beginning to take shape.

This exclusive extract is taken from the ASOS chapter, in How They Started Digital: How 25 Good Ideas Became Spectacular Digital Businesses, published by Crimson Publishing. To read the full chapter and find out more about their start-up story, as well as the inspirational inside stories of 24 other top digital businesses (including Groupon, Etsy, Match.com, Twitter, TripAdvisor and Wonga), pick up your copy of How They Started Digital, available on Amazon now.

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