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Entrepreneurs Uncovered: Cassandra Stavrou

How Propercorn went from cement mixers to supermarket shelves

The premium snack entrepreneur talks about the importance of self-belief when founding a business and how she ensures her company culture attracts a talented team.

Cassandra Stavrou’s idea of premium popcorn started in 2009 and became a reality with the launch of Propercorn in 2011. Now the number one premium popcorn brand in the UK, Cassandra tells us how she did it, from spotting a gap in the market and quitting her day job, to the presentation she had to make with a broken leg. She also shares her thoughts on working with your best friend and the importance of a strong ethos in motivating Propercorn’s passionate team.

Read our Q&A with founder Cassandra below.

How did you start Propercorn?

I’ve always wanted to set up my own business for as long as I can remember. I was in my first job and saw that classic 3pm slump where everyone would go and get a chocolate bar, or get something healthy and then get a chocolate bar anyway because they weren’t satisfied. I saw an opportunity to create a snack that was full of flavour but also better for you. The clincher was when I told my mum about the idea – my father died when I was 16 and she reminded me that the last present he bought me was a popcorn maker. It was a wonderful moment where it just gave me that extra bit of conviction to quit my job pretty much the next day and give it a go.

How sure were you that it was the right thing for you to do?

It may sound strange but for me, the idea of running a business feels easier than working for someone else. I wasn’t afraid of that first step and I was comfortable taking those risks – you have to be prepared to take risks if you are starting a business.

How do you come up with new ideas, like flavours?

Ideas can come from anywhere. A lot of it is from just looking outside of our immediate category for inspiration – we were one of the first to do coconut, and that’s just because coconut as a flavour was a really upcoming trend. An idea can come from anyone in the team or from the people who love our products. Last year we invited people to submit flavour ideas and one we’ve got launching this year came from that kind of crowdsourcing.

What was it like being a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry?

Once I got my business up off the ground there were a lot of doors firmly shut in my face, and that was part of why I had to be resourceful. The gender debate has never been higher on the news and media agenda, which is amazing. Throughout the journey with Propercorn it’s something I am faced with, but not to an extent that it has knocked my confidence. I think that my confidence probably came from having a great support network around me. I’m lucky in that sense, but frustratingly, I continue to find myself in meetings or situations where I do feel like I’m treated differently because I am a woman, and that is really sad.

How have you dealt with challenges along the way?

While I was trying to set up the business I was working evenings and weekends at a pub and after one of my shifts I got a backie on the back of a friend’s bicycle, and came off and badly broke my leg. This was gearing up to launching Propercorn – we were in hyper sales mode, running late for a really important meeting and my business partner Ryan had to put me over his shoulder with a box of popcorn in the other arm, running with the crutches. And we rocked up covered in sweat, and just in complete shambles, but we got the gig and I think that was probably because you could see our passion, our enthusiasm. So often I say just go for it – you don’t have to turn up in a suit and be perfect.

Are there any mistakes you’ve learned from?

I’m often asked what mistakes I've made along the way and the honest answer is tons, but when you’re faced with those kind of challenges you learn and that’s the best. If you're not making mistakes you’re probably not trying hard enough. One really memorable one was in our first few months – it sounds so obvious now – but we misunderstood the concept of shelf life. So what we thought we had six months to sell, we actually only had two months, and it really could have bankrupted the business, but it just forced us to get on the phones, follow every lead and cold call – it genuinely created momentum and kick-started our sales growth.

What’s it like to have a friend as your business partner?

I think often with co-founders you hear horror stories; people advise you to not go into business with your family or friends. It is challenging and intense and there’s a lot of pressure, but we work hard at communicating. It’s about working hard and respecting each other and also having fun. We still go out at the weekends.

What kind of company culture do you have at Propercorn?

The success we’ve achieved today is one hundred percent the product of our team. To ask people to give you their time, to get up every morning and come to work, you have to create an environment that is fulfilling and also fun. As we grow that’s probably the thing that keeps me awake at night: how do you protect that culture? So we do lots of things like the obligatory ping pong table and summer Fridays, and unlimited holiday after 2 years. But these are things any business can do. Eating lunch together everyday is far more important for team and culture - it’s about having food together, having conversation and building empathy across the business. So Becky in design knows exactly what Matt in operations is up to.

How would you sum up your business philosophy and ethos?

The two values that I really hold central to everything are creativity and empathy. You need to have empathy towards your team to get the best out of them; empathy towards your customers to be able to give them what they want; and empathy towards your consumers in the same way.
Creativity is at the very heart of our business and it’s how we’ve found commercial success. One really simple example of that is our cardboard boxes. When you are a new brand and you get a big listing in a supermarket, one of the challenges that you face is that the person loading the shelves will often forget about you because they don’t know you and they are surrounded by a sea of brown cardboard. So we decided to make our cardboard boxes bright and colourful, and look like proper cases, and they suddenly stood out. Our visibility on the shelf changed, and that was, to me, the best example of how creativity can be used to get a commercial result.