How I rode celebrity coat-tails to riches

Nick Robertson used family connections to set up a business selling products similar to those used or worn by celebrities on screen. Now his company is bringing in £73m a year in sales.

Academia was not Nick Robertson's strong point he never managed to get anything higher than a D at A-Level. Nor did his brother Nigel, another pupil at Canford in Dorset. But it didn't matter. "We came from a background where doing well was never in doubt. Austin Reed was my great grandfather, and your personality and connections were always said to be the most important things in life," he says. "And the proof is in the pudding." Nigel is retired in Monaco, having sold his business directory, 'Scoot', for £30m in 1998. Meanwhile, Nick, 41, is founder and chief executive of Britain's biggest online fashion retailer, ASOS (LON:ASC).

After leaving school, Robertson worked as a media buyer. At 29, he got into the product-placement business, starting his own agency, Entertainment Marketing, in 1996. Putting the likes of Weetabix boxes on kitchen tables in Coronation Street, "we began understanding the relationship between celebrity endorsements and brands", he says. A classic example is the fact that sales of Ray Ban sunglasses shot up after Tom Cruise wore them in Top Gun.

So in 1999, with £2.4m raised from his brother and wealthy friends in Monaco, Robertson set up As Seen On Screen (ASOS) in Covent Garden. The idea was to sell products associated with celebrities online, such as the pestle and mortar used by Jamie Oliver on cookery programmes. Then one of Robertson's buyers urged him to start selling clothes to enable people to copy celebrities' looks as well. He started off slowly, with items for sale including black trousers similar to those worn by Kylie Minogue, and strappy tops worn by the band Atomic Kitten. "Slowly but surely the clothes began to outsell everything else. Over the next two to three years the fashion side took off."

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Sales grew from £400,000 in 1999 to £1.5m by 2001, but there were times along the way when things got so rough that Robertson struggled to pay his wages bill. "It was pretty nasty. But every week, every month, every year, we saw sales going up." By 2003, the firm broke even on a turnover of £8m and ASOS took its first full page ad in the celebrity magazine, Heat. "ASOS was born on the back of those magazines," Robertson says. "We rode the wave of celebrity culture." Demand for copycat celebrity clothing continued to soar, with ASOS sourcing and stocking new items as fast as celebrities were pictured wearing them.

But in December 2005, an explosion at Buncefield fuel depot in Hertfordshire threatened to ruin their good work. ASOS's only warehouse, 700 metres away, was damaged in the explosion, rendering £3.8m worth of stock unsellable. "But we were well insured and the great thing about the internet is that we had all our customers' details." The firm emailed all 300,000 or so in January, and said it was having a clearance sale. Sales took off again, and ASOS has doubled revenues every year since, from £17m in 2006 to £38m in 2007 and £73m in the current financial year. Not bad for a guy who "wasn't bright enough for university".

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.