In a whirlwind four years, Cassandra Stavrou has seen her company Propercorn grow from a quirky, innovative start-up to a credible, much-loved food brand that has taken the UK by storm.
Apart from being testament to the business savvy of the 31-year-old and co-founder Ryan Kohn, the success of the British snack company proves that the duo lives and breathes its slogan ‘done properly’.
As well as becoming the official snack of London Fashion Week, Propercorn has branched out into colourful merchandise – popcorn print t-shirts so stylish they would fit in on any catwalk – and is currently celebrating the success of their first campaign, Project Pattern.
True to the company motto, Cassandra and her team went all out to create immersive experiences across London with the help of renowned set designer and art director Rachel Thomas; re-styling the city in the eye-catching colours and popcorn print the snack has become famous for.
“I guess what we’re really proud of is that we’re a small team and pretty much all of us are 30 or younger, so slightly inexperienced in some areas, but we pulled off a campaign of this size,” she told us. “We had loads of agencies pitching for the project and eventually decided to do all the creative in-house. That’s quite particular to Propercorn; we do all of our creative output internally.”
Here, the savvy business founder talks about taking risks, thinking outside the box and merging her love of art, fashion and food…
How did you come up with the idea to start a popcorn company?
As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to run my own business. Before I started the company, I worked in advertising – although at a very junior level – for a couple of years. When I first spotted the opportunity [for Propercorn], I told my mum about it and she reminded me that the last present my dad bought for me before he died was a popcorn machine. It seemed like an extra sign that this was the right idea to pick. So I quit my job!
That was brave of you!
It was either brave or really foolish, one of the two. I had no idea what I was doing and just gave it a go. But I knew very quickly exactly how I wanted it to look and what I wanted it to stand for as a brand, and I don’t think we have deviated too much from that over the years.
Did you go on any business courses?
Right at the beginning I enrolled in a two-week course that the East London Small Business Centre offers; it’s really basic and just teaches you things like cash flow and VAT. That was a good starting point. But I really believe in networking, so we built up a good group of mentors and it’s amazing how generous people were with their time.
Have you always been into food?
I come from Cyprus, so that very Greek emphasis on food is very much part of the culture I was raised in. I love having big dinner parties and cooking for all my friends and I always overestimate how much food is needed – there’s usually enough for days after! Food has always been a big love of mine but I wouldn’t say I had any professional experience. We came up with the original recipes at home in my mum’s kitchen before partnering with my good friend Ryan.
What were the biggest challenges when you started out?
Just keeping momentum. I had a lot of knock-backs from people that didn’t take me seriously. You need to have confidence in what you’re trying to do and back yourself – that’s so important because people don’t believe in your idea unless you’re convincing.
Where do you find inspiration?
By looking outside of our ‘category’. I love going to the Royal Academy of Arts to check out their exhibitions because there’s so much amazing talent there. Inspiration comes from fashion, art and, of course, looking at food trends. Coconut was such a big flavour a couple of years ago and it still is, so that really inspired me to create the coconut and vanilla recipe. We also have lunch together as a team every day where we introduce snacks to try and keep everything as exciting and fresh as possible.
Speaking of fashion, Propercorn is a partner of London Fashion Week. That’s pretty cool!
I’m very passionate about the arts and as well as creating a snack that is healthy and tasty, I wanted to forge a brand that is visually really credible. So I came up with the original designs for the packaging with a friend of mine who does fashion illustrations for the likes of Vogue. Even our boxes, rather than going with brown cardboard we created the colourful suitcases which have become quite iconic. It’s the same with the [popcorn print] t-shirts and they turned out so beautiful that we now sell them on the website.
The British Fashion Council actually approached us when we first launched and the relationship just grew from there. Now we get requested by lots of designers, modelling agencies and fashion shows to be in their goodie bags.
What were your biggest ‘pinch me’ moments over the last four years?
I get asked that a lot and the honest answer is that I haven’t quite had that moment yet because we’re so ambitious that we still feel we have so much more to achieve! One of the things I’m most proud of is the team; we’ve got such an amazing passionate and fun group of people who really care about the brand.
A special moment was launching the Propercorn Platform, where we invited 16 to 23-year-olds to submit their business plans and refine them in workshops over a couple of days. At the end, they pitched to Ryan and myself and a panel of judges and the winning team received £7,500 and a commitment from Propercorn to mentor them.We really believe that doing business properly is about giving back and it was really rewarding for us to be able to share what we’ve learnt.
Where would you like to see the company go in the next few years?
Well, we are still growing at a very fast rate and have lots of ideas for new flavours. In the past year we have become an international business so we’re now sold in six other European countries including France, the Netherlands and Ireland. But there is still so much more we can do in the UK; we want the Propercorn Platform to be bigger next year, produce even more creative artwork and create lots of exciting events. We have so many ideas and it’s certainly not slowing down anytime soon.
How do you relax outside of work?
We actually feel really strongly about having a good work/life balance and I love going out with my friends at the weekends. There are lots of pop-up restaurants that I love checking out, going to restaurant openings or having a dance at a club night. I also love going to an exhibition and cooking for my friends, just the usual stuff.
Having founded a healthy snack brand, are you quite into your fitness?
I should do way more, but I walk to work every day and those 15 minutes really help me to clear my head. I also do yoga every week. Diet-wise, I eat pretty much everything but I would say that the food I genuinely love tends to be fairly healthy – not in a ‘a can of tuna’ kind of way, but because it’s good quality. I love really healthy salads, but it’s definitely about good quality food rather than low calorie meals.
Who do you follow on Instagram?
Cassandra’s tips for building your own business
1. Network. Follow every possible lead, leave no stone unturned and you never know who someone might know and who they can introduce you to. If you can demonstrate that you’re really passionate about what you’re trying to do, people are very willing to give you their time and as long as you’re always grateful for that, it can carry you a long way.
2. Execution is key. There are so many amazing ideas out there and often the difference between a good idea and success is how well you execute it. It really is about being able to demonstrate it’s commercially viable and having a strategy to distribute and grow it.
3. Love what you do. You have to be incredibly passionate about your business because it’s not easy to have that amount of discipline and hard work without getting demoralised sometimes.
For more information about Propercorn and their work visit www.propercorn.com.
Credit: Some images were taken from Propercorn’s Instagram account.