ASOS Founder on the bold moves it took to launch the e-commerce giant
Nick Robertson made the boldest of moves by launching ASOS at a time when online shopping still relied on dial-up internet and then went on to become, arguably one of the most successful fashion Ecommerce destinations globally.
Robertson joined Lauretta Roberts, Editor-in-Chief of TheIndustry.fashion for a very special interview at London's Soho House as part of the 'Bold Moves Academy' in partnership with Klarna for Business.
Recorded on the day of ASOS's appointing of a new CEO, Robertson talked about his early career, his entry into the fashion industry, the initial struggles of growing the business, how he built a reliable team and his involvement in the business today.
"Everything is a struggle but in a good way. ASOS was fun but hard work." he tells Roberts, looking back at his career at the online giant. "We had no fashion background and we had never worked in fashion - it's bizarre that we ended up being big in fashion having no experience whatsoever."
Utilising his previous experience in brand and marketing, Robertson brought together a team and began working on the foundations of ASOS (As Seen On Screen).
"We understood having a tightly defined customer and giving them what they wanted and ended up being the connection between a link to purchase a product and a page in a magazine with a celebrity wearing an outfit."
"We saw customers looking at the website and we thought we could present them with everything they could ever want in the world of fashion. We were looking at Amazon and seeing them add categories every day and we thought we should add more and more fashion to the site too. We were trying to solve the problem of 'how can we put as many brands in one place?'. We looked at department stores and saw that they put all these brands in one place, even Topshop was doing it. Nobody however was following suit online", he says.
It took department stores and other brands years to catch on to concept of selling clothing online, especially on sites that stocked other brands. Robertson notes he was always "baffled" by businesses like Topshop worrying about online sales "cannibalising store sales", noting that the business, owned at the time by Sir Philip Green, spent 10 years understanding that customers would enjoy the accessibility of an ecommerce site.
He continues: "We had no idea of what the scale could be for ASOS. The sense was that we were doing something that no one else was doing and the potential market is huge. If we could do it better than anyone else and make a customers life easier, we knew they'd be loyal to us. We realised that 'life easier' in fashion is presenting as much in one place so customers don't need to switch between websites."
ASOS grew organically, unlike fashion giants like Boohoo Group, who have grown through acquisitions. The company did however purchase Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge following the collapse of Green's fashion empire Arcadia.
Robertson talks with pride about the acquisition: "It probably helped that we already sold a lot of Topshop products on ASOS. After I stepped down as CEO in 2015, Nick Beighton helped Philip come on board and allowed ASOS to stock products from Topshop. We quickly became a big seller of Topshop and when agreeing the deal (in 2021) we understood the value of the brand. As we were a big seller of Topshop, if others wanted to do the deal they'd need to come to us and ask if we'd still come on board."
Hypothesising a situation where he'd set up his own brand, Robertson concludes: "It's tough. It sounds cliche but you've got to have some that's different and something that's world class compared to anyone else in the same space - if not? I think I think you'd struggle."
Watch the Bold Moves Academy Live with Nick Robertson, Founder, ASOS here.
If you want to be inspired by other Founder stories, listen to the Bold Moves podcast series.
Recent ASOS news includes the launch of its second circular design collection, a trial partnership with resale service Thrift+ and new sustainability targets as part of its Fashion with Integrity programme.