'Business is not rocket science. I’m not saving lives or doing open-heart surgery'

Popcorn entrepreneur Cassandra Stavrou on the power of confidence, the importance of a clear vision and why experience isn’t everything in business

Arriving at Propercorn HQ, I’m met by a buzz of noise and a blur of colour. Bright, playful branding and bags of popcorn adorn every surface, and there is a noticeable energy among the young, enthusiastic staff. Company founder Cassandra Stavrou, perched on a desk in the corner of the open-plan office, has a policy of hiring “attitude over experience”, an approach that seems to have served the company well.

Founded in October 2011, Propercorn has carved itself an impressive niche in a crowded marketplace. In just four years, it has grown from humble beginnings to turn over £5.4m in 2014 and is currently selling around three million bags of popcorn every month. First stocked in Google HQ, Propercorn can now be found on the shelves of more than 10,000 retailers, including Waitrose, Tesco and Whole Foods.

Stavrou’s route to food entrepreneurship wasn’t an obvious one. She had no previous experience in the food or manufacturing industries, and no formal business training.

She studied law at university, a qualification she chose because “because it was a good degree to have, probably slightly influenced by my family”. After a stint at a large London advertising firm, she began to develop the Propercorn brand in earnest. Stavrou admits she has never felt at home in large companies and knew from a young age that she wanted to be an entrepreneur.

“I’ve always, always wanted to run a business for as long as I can remember,” she says. “Age 14 was when I first started thinking about it.

“I was 24 or 25 when I had the idea [for Propercorn] and I’m quite impatient so I thought I could achieve a significant amount in a few months. Invariably, it took about two years, which is always the case.”

So how do you even begin to bridge the gap between a great idea and a fully formed brand?

“Number one is all about being able to take a risk and a leap of faith,” Stavrou says. “Everyone, to a certain extent, is an entrepreneur. The difference between that and a business is just doing it.”

But it’s not all about passion and enthusiasm. “Having a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve is important,” Stavrou says. “For me, it wasn’t that I wanted to make popcorn. I wanted to use popcorn to provide a healthy alternative to a packet of crisps. A snack that delivers both taste and health, something that I can deliver to consumers across the UK.”

She adds: “Apart from that it’s just about really backing yourself and having confidence. For women especially, there can be a lack of confidence or a notion that business is this abstract concept that is hard to relate to. But when you break it down the fact is that it’s quite simple. Business is not rocket science. I’m not saving lives or doing open-heart surgery.”

Then of course comes the sticky notion of funding. However brilliant your idea and however watertight your plan, few ventures can get off the ground without capital. For Stavrou, the first step was to save, save, save. She moved back in with her mum, took temping jobs, worked in a pub and did painting commissions. She eventually managed to save the £10,000 required to get some product development under way and set up the “basic finances”. Around this time, she realised she “wanted to be accountable to someone” so she teamed up with her friend Ryan Kohn and they launched the business together in 2011.

The manufacturing industry is notoriously male dominated – was it an intimidating world for a twentysomething female entrepreneur?

“I’m yet to meet a manufacturer who is female,” says Stavrou. “The world of manufacturing is mainly big, burly men who have been in the industry for a long time. With no track record, no experience, as a young girl rocking up in my trainers rather than in a suit … I got a lot of doors shut in my face. I also had quite a few people telling me that I should go and ask for my job back.

“I understand that, to an extent. It was a massive punt and it required someone who also had an entrepreneurial approach, who shared a bit of the vision and took a leap of faith. I still work with them today.”

I’m struck by how clear the brand vision seems to have been right from the start. The product sold in shops today is pretty much exactly the healthy snack alternative that Stavrou set out to create. A recent partnership with London Fashion Week (Propercorn has been the official snack of the event for the past nine seasons) is another demonstration of the product’s dominance in the healthy snack market.

“If you strip it back, [the proposition] hasn’t deviated at all,” Stavrou says. “Having said that, we’re constantly evolving, whether that’s refreshing the aesthetics, experimenting with new flavours, broadening the brand. There’s huge growth there but you can also distil it to a clear vision from day one. That’s quite important because it’s those kind of fundamentals that you set at the beginning that really do trigger that growth.”

So what’s next for Propercorn? World domination, a new product range, stepping into a new market?

Stavrou says that while Kohn and she have been tempted to expand the brand into new food products, they have decided that for the time being there are still plenty of opportunities in the popcorn market. The ambition is to be the global number one premium popcorn brand.

World domination, it seems, is definitely on the cards. The brand is sold in six European countries and cracking the rest of Europe is a priority, followed by the US. “Global is the next big challenge for us,” Stavrou says.

But it’s not all about profit margins and endless growth. The brand slogan “Done Properly” extends to the way the company is run – it’s about giving back, Stavrou says. This includes the Propercorn Platform, which supports and funds young entrepreneurs, and the company plans to launch a foundation in the next 12 months.

The positive slogan applies to the work ethic too and a meticulous hiring process has built a hugely “dynamic and passionate group of people” who provide the fuel for new avenues and ideas. “We’re really encouraging that,” Stavrou says. “As much as we know what the future looks like, we’re always open to change, to evolving because of the people within the business. It’s really exciting. I think, I hope, everyone internally also shares that excitement.” She pauses. “So we have quite a lot to do.”


Lottie O'Conor

The GuardianTramp

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