ASOS is a retail powerhouse – totting up over ￡2.3 Billion in sales in the 2017/2018 financial year, with profits growing 28% YoY. More importantly however, ASOS is a value driven company – achieving success through thoughtful action inspired by a shared mission.
Our Agency Director, Luca Senatore, was fortunate to sit down with the man leading ASOS’ charge to be the number one destination for fashion loving twentysomethings. Covered in the interview was growing businesses, internationalisation and personal development.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the packed 16 minute interview:
ASOS started by solving a problem for the customer first
ASOS started with the aim of bringing items seen on TV (The original name of the company was ‘As Seen on Screen’ – although this wouldn’t fit on a clothing label!) and celebrities and according to Nick – making them accessible to the general public by being 10x cheaper.
The important point made by Nick here is it wasn’t a product his team were looking to sell – it was a problem they were looking to solve. For this reason, ASOS didn’t even start as a fashion company – the first product was a pestle and mortar. Only later came a shipment of dresses, which kick started the rest of what is known as history.
“The best ideas come from your customers, the second best ideas come from your staff”
Nick took over as CEO in 2015, having been in the company since 2009 as CFO. In 2010, he and his team identified customers were looking for the opportunity to purchase through their phones – with the ecosystem back then being mainly web-internet based.
With this knowledge in hand, ASOS was able to develop an app delivering a mobile experience in the simple, friction free manner to the customers who had requested this.
Another example Nick provided was the decision to offer bridalwear – a proposal from within his own team. Although hesitant to start with, Nick knew his employees were the ones living and breathing the brand with constant customer contact so he backed them – today, bridalwear is one of ASOS’ largest categories.
A final example came from how ASOS went international. At the beginning of their journey they started with the UK, cautiously expanding into Ireland and Northern Europe. Only when a single request came in from Australia did ASOS start selling there (showing a complete dedication the customer satisfaction) – a country which now represents a large part of their business. Today, 60% of ASOS’ sales are from anywhere but the UK.
“When you grow bigger, you have to work harder at acting smaller”
With 4,000 people in ASOS’ team, it’s easy to lose track of who people are but also the values and mission which connects them.
ASOS has consciously dismantled their hierarchy, preferring a flat structure to empower their team to act with authority, but also create a feeling of equality and togetherness in the team. Nick strives to be just another ASOS’er with a slightly different job to the next person, and as such invites all new starters to board meetings on a Tuesday (“everyone at ASOS starts work on a Tuesday because no one likes Mondays”), to introduce themselves. This way – Nick becomes another face in the office anyone can approach.
Nick finally touches on the importance of being present, available, and communicating with his team with informal one to one chats in the corridor – often going missing in the office because he is speaking to his team, much to the harm of his secretary’s blood pressure.
Having a mission counts
When it comes to a company the size of ASOS, there has to be a glue to hold the team together. In ASOS’ case, as with most great companies – this comes in the form of a strong set of purpose and values.
ASOS’ mission is to ‘be the number one destination for fashion-loving twentysomethings’. Packed in here is a lot. First, there is a clear indication of aspiration – ‘number one’ could mean the biggest, but it could also mean the number one in customer service – this is a mission which by definition will never be met, as it always allows the company to focus on new aspects of self-improvement.
Next, ‘fashion’ simply states the product, but ‘loving’ indicates a company where the customer is one who deeply cares about the things they are purchasing. This phrase indicates a requirement for ASOS to be deeply passionate and love the products they produce as much as their customers do – driving up standards.
‘Twentysomethings’ gives a clear target market for the company, influencing everything from branding to products to voice to culture.
But this is not the only things which matter in terms of purpose. ASOS aspires to create a company who empower their employees and customers to be who they are with confidence. This mission unifies the company once again – reinforced by a culture of bravery, authenticity and creativity.
Nobody knows everything
One of the most inspiring parts of the interview was the closing remark by Nick, simply stating “never be afraid to share your vulnerability, nobody knows everything”. Even though it may sound simple – from a person of Nick’s calibre, this means a lot.
This comes through in Nick’s attitude to failure. On multiple occasions throughout the interview, he reflects on the attitude to failure and adversity as opportunities to fix something, rather than a thing to dwell on. Reflecting on cultural differences to failure, Nick identified the US culture of being proud of the number of failed businesses they’ve had as they’re considered as lessons, rather than a UK attitude which is more likely to use failure as a dirty word.
The restless pursuit of self improvement from Nick and the company he has built also came through from a quote he recalled from Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba: “in your twenties, work with great people and learn, in your thirties – give it a go, in your forties, double down, and in your fifties – give back. This gives you decades. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Nick, thanks a lot for doing this I really appreciate your time. I know you on your diary is crazy, not surprisingly. So we got a couple of questions. The purpose of this is to help mainly ASOS wannabes so: how do they do this? A couple of questions all about what you did. You started at ASOS in 2009 correct? In finance, is that right? So how did you, as a person as a CEO now and ASOS, go through the digital transformation so to speak. What were the steps, the blocking points?
So ASOS was started as a journey looking through the customer’s eyes it wasn’t started as a “how do we sell lots o products” it was “how we solve customer problems”. And a very first product the webisode was a pestle and mortar which has nothing to do with what we sell today but it’s all to do with the creating something for customers. Way back then it used to be as seen on screen and it was the concept was if you’ve seen your favourite celebrity and the other movie stars and the other-other sports icons wearing something you should come to a ASOS you can do it for a tenth of the price. So that was where we first started out as.
Along the journey we transformed cells slowly it was web or and out there right at the start and then we came into when we buy some of our own product the second ever buy that came in was a little lady called Lori Penn who was very good buying dresses and so we said go buy some dresses. We then came across a problem whereas ‘seen on screen’ didn’t fit into the back of the label very well so we came up with first four letters which were a s o s ASOS. And the beauty of that was it’s a four-letter acronym and when the search engine traffic started to build it began with A through a lot of natural traffic early doors. So that was where we were back in 2009.
A very first international sales were around Ireland and Northern Europe and then we had a customer from Australia go “can you get this dress to us” we went “ok” we decided to send that garment to that young lady in Australia and then pretty quickly Australia became the start of a real international strategy. In 2009 international was about 15 percent of our total sales today it’s 60 percent and it kind of came from that first order the and the changing and today we have ASOS brand which is the largest brand on the planet never to have a store. So that’s around 40 percent of our revenues now. Right back then we always looking at customers needs, never afraid to twist and turn and pivot and that’s kind of hopefully is relevant today as it was then. Yeah, so one of the reasons why have asked for these interviews because I’m a true avid ASOS fun. I LIKE YOUR JACKET. You know what jacket a part from the shoes, everything else is ASOS. What I love about ASOS as a user. it’s the fact that you guys really seem to listen. You almost read minds “I wish the app could do this” and then it does it.
And if it works all the time so it’s clear that you listen to your people and yeah how do you do it and most importantly, once you listened, how do you decide what to implement? So our best ideas come from our customers and the second best ideas come from the staff. And our staff are also our harshest critics they’re our best customers the most prolific customers and so we listen to all of those and we strain to go what was it what would it that customers would warm from the ASOS and then let’s try and deliver it so we always start from customers eyes and we listen really religiously and they were trying to implement and delight them with it. I mean an example with that is 2010 we didn’t have any mobile so our mobiletraffic than zero. We sat there and said: “our customers are gonna love shopping on mobile so let’s create a mobile experience”.
So back then he just went on the web and then we went right we need to create an app. So how do we create an app a simple friction-free intuitive and speaks to the customer the way they want to shop? So all the way through our journey there was we’ve done that. Another example that was bridal wear. About three or four years ago we started on bridal wear and I literally said to the team: “there’s no way we can do bridal wear” because the in someone’s best day in they’re life, sending them a bridal gown in a box just isn’t going to work and they went “Nick we can give that one go” I go “okay let’s give it a go” and a couple of years ago Bridal Wear became one of the biggest categories so I backed the staff and the products are amazing the experience is amazing so it’s listening to our customers andlisten to our staff that we get the best ideas.
I guess that’s one of the things that makes you good at your job, good at being the CEOs listening yeah it’s very obvious but rarely done. It’s the hardest thing to do but it’s actually the easiestthing to do if you apply yourself to it. As CEO you’re not doing an awful lot of doing you’re doing a lot of listening and then direct. Almost like panningfor gold so you look for the gold speak to the teams listen to all the customers are saying and then suggest a change to them. Yeah and that leads me very nicely to something that I’m really really interested in personally, which is coaching versus management. For me, coaching is the way forward. Management doesn’t really work; if you managing and not really givingpeople their opportunity to be what they can be right? And within that, you’ve got four thousand employees? Yeah, four thousand. How do you do that? How do you fight, if you do at all, they’re overly hierarchical systems and structures that many organizations seem to adopt.
Back nine-ten years ago when I joined, we put a hierarchy in place because we thought that was what you had to do when you became a bigger business. Somewhere in the last five years, we realized that slowed us down so what we did was actively dismantle the hierarchy. We have a completely flat structure. At the top I have ten direct reports, I tried to make it hierarchy-less below that and therefore it means the spans of control from top to bottom or as short as possible. The way I deploy myself is Iregularly walk around the teams and I hang out and just and just have a conversation with people on a day to day basis I try and schedule time in my day where I can do that. I often go missing when my secretary is looking for me because I’m actually talking someone as I was doing just there and I think that’s the best way to connect. I agree I agree our organization is sixty people and we are having to pay attention to do that right?
So I don’t if you know Dan Pink who talks about how people get motivated and he talks about three things: mastery they need to be able to be good at what they do. They need to have autonomy so you can allow them to make mistakes and ultimately they need a bigger sense of purpose. What is ASOS purpose? ASOS’ purpose is to give people, our customers and ASOSers the confidence to be who they want to be. So that’s the purpose that we all live by that’s whatbrings us to work every day that’s what gets me out of bed every day. We then have three values that we talk about religiously and we embed in all our communication and we’ve been in all our training which is one being authentic being brave and being creative. Those values guide our mission. Our mission is a never-ending infinite mission to be the world’s number one fashion destination for fashion loving 20-somethings and I don’t want that to ever end. So it’s one of those things that I know when we’ll get there it can be like that Nirvana state that we know it’d be pretty beautiful but we’ll just keep ongoing.
What does that mean? It means it’s a restless behaviour; nothing is ever a problem, it’s just an opportunity to change, to fix it. And every time we’ve run into a problem it’s actually only proven to be a bump on the road it’s only a bump on the road if your mind is open to the learning opportunity gives you and if you have a look at what the customers tell you now but listen to what the staff are telling you to find it’s something that you need to fix or you? need to pivot or you need to change rather than anything else. So we have a very restless culture when we bring people into the building all new starters start on a Tuesday because nobody likes a Monday everybody comes in on a Tuesday and they always meet the exact board at 11:15 every Tuesday and they come in to the exact board and we ask them to introduce themselves to us and to tell us something about themselves. The rationale behind that is when they met the board they just go “hey there’s Nick” and I know them and they know all the rest of the board and then from that with create a relationship from day one and so it’s about people about connection and I just happen to do a different job toe verybody else but we all have jobs which are valuable. That’s remarkable. That’s very different from many other organizations that we come across of your size. Well, it’s one of the these things the bigger we get you have to work harder at trying to feel smaller.
I LIKE YOUR JACKET. I know that being different is something that you like as a person and your life as a brand, always trying to be different.
How do you do that? Well one of the founding principles below the three values we have a number of behavioural principles one of them is always turn left when I was turned right. Just because you don’t know what the left-hand turn will bring if you follow everyone else you might actually miss something that’s really interesting so we actively encourage people to be bravebe creative and think about somethinglike turning left when everyone is turning right. So it’sone of our founding principles and we actively call that out as a behaviour.
I LIKE YOUR JACKETIf you were to give much much smaller entities your best advice to be different and your best advice to get rid of hierarchies, what would it be? where do smaller organizations start with that? Well, you’ve got to solve the customer problem. I speak a lot to students, they all say to me they want to start a business be an entrepreneur and that’s absolutely great but it starts with solving a customer problem so start customer need find the customer need first of all and then you find the business and opportunity behind that. So start with that then be brave and then back yourself, in fact, the best advice I’ve heard on people building their careers comes from Jack Ma and JackMa goes “in your twenties work with great people and learn as much as you can. Inyour 30s give it a go because if hedoesn’t work out you’ve got the rest ofyour life to correct yourself in your40s Double Down and what you’ve found tobe good at and then your 50s giveback”. I think that’s quite a nice way oflooking at it if it gives you decades tothink through.
And actually life is a marathon, not a race and we often get ourselves in a position where we’rerunning without necessarily thinking so that is quite a nice way of looking at it. So for people starting out in agency, go look for a customer need look for adding value to the customer better service better prize better connection be brave give it a go find out what you’re good at double down on that if it doesn’t work out you’ve not lost anything, you have learned something. Yeahthat’s very good yes people oftenoverestimate what they can do in a monthand then they fail because they went too big, but they understand what canbe done in a year. There is the UK culture and American culture and I like both but I’ve sat in many US startups and seeing them present their ideas to me and they almost wear the number of startups that they’ve haven’t failed as a badge of honour. And the UK they kind of treat it as a failure and they shrink from it whereas actually u.s. culture is about three startups and the UK guys will often say three failures, yeah but actually three startups means they’ve had three sets of learning experiences. It justdepends how you want to turn your mind. It’s like doing three masters right? I’ve not gone to UniI couldn’t afford it so had to go towork, and that was my Uni. I LIKE YOUR JACKETso you talk about the US and I know thatUS is big for you guys in terms of internationalizationbut people often mistake the samelanguage for the same culture it’s notThey the copy and pastetheir UK business, go to the US and say “ohmy god this doesn’t work” yeah.
What arethe biggest learnings than you then youcan share about going from the UKto the US. Well, it’s learning the same learning he’s going from the UK to Europe so you wouldn’t dream of presenting the same web experience to a German customer or an Italian customer or French customer that you would to aUK customer right? And so we look at u.s. you should think about it inexactly the same way. So in actual fact there are 50 individual states with different fashion needs, different cultures all combined with a common language but and there are different climates u.s. is seven or eight different climatic regions there are four different time zones and their different fashion tastes. So you have tocut it up into small pieces and look atthe customer pockets and serve it asindividual customers rather than “‘here’sone country’. If you go here’s one country you’re getting it wrong; if you cut it up by individual customers individual attitudes in this individual location you’ll get a better answer. There is a confidence in the way you say that that tells me you learnt that, you haven’t read that ina book, you learn it on your own skin. So one of our behaviours is learned by doing. The more we do the more we learn I love it leads me to the next questions we should very welcome not to answer: them a couple of horror stories of learning by doing, because there must have been right?
So every weekwe screw things up every day and and thethat’s why my favorite phrase for theorganization is ‘everything is a bumpon the road’ makes a galvanizing momentit’s like only a galvanizing moment ifyou open your brain to it. Ifyou take it as a failure and you missthe learning experience so China is agreat example we we had a terribleexperience in China but actually wehave a great experience because we learnloads of things and we realized that wehad to either regroup and get better inChina or regroup and wait for thatcertain conditions to come to ourfavour. I think a good closingquestion is, and again, one of those youcan refuse to answer, what do you have astrong opinion on, what do you think isabsolutely true but most people woulddisagree with you? Interesting. I LIKE YOUR JACKET Well first thing that comes to mind that I’ll give to people watching this is business is never finished your own development is never finished and I don’t know whether people will agree with me or not so for example I treat ASOS as work in progress, I treat myself as working progress. One day a ASOS will be a great business until then we’ll make it better. One day I might be a great chief exec until then I try and get better.
So that’s how that’s that’s the first thing came to mind when you answer a question whether people agree they’re not I don’t know but always restless always work in progress everything’s always an opportunity to solve. I don’t know about the people watching this but I feel truly blessed that I had this opportunity I promise because I aspire to be the best chief exec I can now working in a very small organization and meeting people like you who not only have done it but are still doing it they know that they don’t know it’ sits incredibly inspiring. Never be afraid to share your own vulnerability. Nobody knows everything.