Rags and riches

ASOS founder Nick Robertson discusses the meteoric rise of his online fashion emporium

Now a household name, ASOS has joined, and even surpassed, the likes of H&M and Topshop as the go-to store for what's hot to wear. Nick Robertson, founder of the online superstore, began his career in advertising immediately after finishing school. Ten years later, he decided to start his own online business, then called AsSeenOnScreen.com because of its mission to bring the fashion of the stars to the high street. ASOS has since become the UK's second largest fashion retailer after Topshop's parent company, Arcadia Group.

Going global

Despite its huge popularity here, ASOS doesn't believe its future opportunities lie solely within the UK: "We have shipped to 160 countries in the past quarter," Nick proudly informs us, while admitting that business would have been tougher if they'd limited themselves to Britain alone.

One of ASOS's most significant overseas markets is the US. ASOS arrived in America at a time when youth unemployment was peaking and the lowest retail figures seen for a generation had just been published, but Nick saw grounds for optimism in the growth of the online market, and he has been proved right. While the average customer might be spending less on the high street, they're spending more from their computers at home. The trend stretches across many retailers: "What do you think John Lewis and Topshop are doing online?" Nick asks us. "Still growing at 50-60 per cent."

East is east

ASOS also has a significant presence in France and Germany. The company has dedicated websites for these markets, and is looking to launch "three to five more this year" with Asia its next target. Nick reminds us: "The UK represents just 3 per cent of global internet traffic - there's still 97 per cent to play for! Asia represents 50 per cent. If we want to compete, we have to be there." But with new markets, come new challenges. From different languages to sizing issues, Nick is learning fast about doing business in emerging markets. "In China," he says by way of an example, "you can't be a 100 per cent Western-owned business - you must have a local partner, which is something we're working on."

Customer, customer, customer

One aspect of ASOS's business which will be particularly hard to translate is the distinctive shopping experience it offers its customers. Using the "magazine model", Robertson wants to captures browsers, hoping sales will follow. He explains his way of working to us: "The internet has blown traditional retailers out of the water - they can't move quickly enough to understand it." Instead of trying to force internet shopping to fit old systems and methods, ASOS started with "a blank sheet of paper" and redesigned significant chunks of the online retail experience.

The business philosophy of ASOS is simple, yet powerful. "Do what's right for the customers, not what's right for the business, because generally what's right for the customer will be right for the business," says Nick. For example, while the best margins for ASOS remain with their popular own brand items, Nick thinks the "umbrella website format" with other labels included is the way forward. This customer focus is also manifested in Nick's commitment to providing free delivery on all orders. He explains: "I knew that free delivery is where the world would be in three years time, but I wanted to get there right away."

He ain't heavy...

This focus on developing a customer-focused brand stems from Nick's experiences during ten years working in advertising: "I learnt a lot about different business sectors, their customers, and how they respond." Nick spent the decade under the wing of his older brother - another entrepreneur - who gave him the belief, confidence and capital to get ASOS started. "When you have a brother who's doing it, it's easier," he admits. "As well as him writing a cheque to get ASOS off the ground, I was also inspired by the fun he was having, despite the stresses and strains of having your own business."

Stresses and strains there may be, but Nick can surely take comfort in his company's sound financial position. At the outset, ASOS raised £2.8 million in loans, but since then it hasn't had to take on any additional debt. Being debt-free allows gives Nick the agility required to satisfy an unpredictable customer base. "If you are private equity-owned or saddled with debt," he says, "you are limited on how much capital you can invest. Being debt-free has been a huge factor in ASOS's progress."

The launch of ASOS Marketplace last year, an online second-hand vintage store stocked by ASOS's users themselves, is the company's latest inspired step forward, displaying the combination of creativity, sound business execution, and self-belief that has fuelled ASOS's growth.

And all from nothing in just over a decade, by a man who didn't even go to university.