Propercorn: From the simple to the sublime…

PROPERCORN’S HQ, a beautifully converted warehouse by Regent’s Canal, buzzes with youthful energy. Stroll through the front door, past the doorbell emblazoned with the words ‘Done Properly’, and you find yourself in one of London’s more life-affirming offices.

The ‘guilt-free’ popcorn brand’s co-founders Cassandra Stavrou, an ex-ad agency employee, and Ryan Kohn, an entrepreneur since university, tell us how it all began: “Cass and I have been friends for many years and our lives aligned at the right moment,” says Ryan. “I was considering my next venture and she was looking for a business partner to help get her idea off the ground. We put our heads together and, about a year later, launched the business in 2011 from my living room.”

Cassandra had her big idea while working for a London advertising agency. Every day at around 3pm someone would go out to buy chocolate or cake. Inevitably, colleagues would get stuck in and then feel guilty soon after. There was a clear gap in the market, as the only available healthy options seemed to be rice cakes and apples, (which aren’t quite as appealing!) Cassandra had fond memories of making popcorn with her dad as a child, and her mum later reminded her that one of the last presents he bought her before he sadly passed away was an old-school popcorn machine. That was all the serendipity she needed to quit her job and start the business. But starting your own business can be lonely without someone to share in the highs and lows.

Enter Ryan. And with his arrival came another serendipitous moment as he had a friend who worked for Google: “We met Google’s head chef who loved our product,” says Ryan. “He introduced us to a small wholesaler who could deliver to Google’s offices and we are still with that wholesaler today.” Astonishingly, of the 48 snacks that Google have in their office, PROPERCORN was the fastest moving. “That success gave us the confidence to talk to the likes of Leon, Benugo and Chopped, and once we had won Waitrose and Tesco, we really took off. Now, fast-forward five years, we sell three million bags a month and have an amazing team of 40.”

That’s huge growth. So how are they managing it? Cassandra says: “One of our biggest challenges as we grew was to retain our entrepreneurial spirit. It was easy when there were just five of us, as we could quickly create a family culture. Now, as we continue to grow, it is increasingly important to hold on to that culture, that boldness and nimbleness and nurture it. We always hire attitude over experience because positive, passionate people create a wonderful culture. That said, we’ve also brought in senior heavyweights who have the positive attitude needed to upskill others. For example, about a year and a half ago we hired Ben Greensmith, ex-commercial director of Innocent, and he has been a great addition to the team.”

Their tag line, ‘Done Properly’, has also been crucial when shaping their growth. “It’s our mantra,” says Cassandra. “It’s been a glue to hold the team together. It underpins our moral code, too. Our team, customers and suppliers are vital to our success, so we look after them and respect them. ‘Done Properly’ doesn’t mean striving for absolute perfection but is making things the best they can possible be; doing things in the right way. Rather than just outsourcing our package design to an agency for example, we worked closely with an illustrator to hand-illustrate the artwork. And instead of using plain cardboard boxes with a logo slapped across the front to hold our popcorn, we created colourful cases designed to look like bags and suitcases. It’s an attention to detail and it’s the little things that we’re passionate about- something as simple as always including a handwritten note when we send popcorn out can make all the difference.

“We also ran a competition called the Propercorn Platform where we invited 16- to 24-year-olds to submit their business ideas. The top 12 were invited in for a two-day workshop with our team. They could bring their ideas to life and pitch them to a panel, which included Innocent founder Richard Reed. The winner won a prize fund to get their idea off the ground and a lifetime’s mentorship.”

So what does the future hold for Cassandra and Ryan? How do they plan to develop the strong moral code that runs throughout their business? “Done Properly has always been our commitment to making delicious, guilt-free popcorn with flavour, honesty and passion. But we’ve always known that it can mean a lot more.” says Ryan. “For us, it’s about making everything the best it can possibly be. When it comes to food, this means going beyond flavour to create a brilliant product from seed to snack, making our popcorn as nutritious for the environment as it is for our bodies. This year, we’re working on Project S, an initiative which involves everyone in our team and focusses on people, production and product.

“We are also committed to looking after our team. Everyone has their own personal development plan and a fully paid unlimited holiday allowance. We are happy for our people to decide what they do and don’t do with their time. We have a chef who makes us lunch every day, too. Eating together is so powerful because everyone in the team mixes, helping to create wonderful friendships and means that our workforce becomes more knowledgeable, motivated and passionate. It’s this passion that helps us to compete against the big guys – if you look after the team, the team looks after you.”

Cassandra and Ryan received financial help from friends and family in the early days. But what about venture capital? Cassandra says: “Last year, because of our international success and the launch of our new product, Crunch Corn, we thought it was the right time to raise funds. A few months ago we completed a deal with the founders of Innocent who, after selling their brand, set up an investment vehicle called JamJar. One of the founders is now our chairman and joining us too are a wonderful company called Piper, who have a wealth of experience investing in consumer brands.

JamJar and Piper are the perfect partners as they’ve shown they have the same passion and enthusiasm for PROPERCORN as we do, and are equally focused on making it the number one global snack brand. They join our team with incredible knowledge, expertise and network, and both Ryan and I are confident we have the best investors to help us realise our big ambitions.”

Ryan adds: “When we raised money it was exactly the right thing for us to do to get to the next level. We took our time to come to that big decision. We were always receptive, kept listening to offers, kept a spreadsheet and kept control. It’s all about execution, having a plan and a clear vision. You must then work out the steps to realise that ambition and make sure that you do it your way. Take inspiration from what others have done and don’t let the doubters and critics put you off. Even my grandma worried I’d end up flogging PROPERCORN from a wheelbarrow on Tottenham Court Road! You’ve always got to prove people wrong.” And that is something that Ryan and Cassandra have most definitely achieved.

Disclaimer: The statements made by our interviewees are an expression of their own views and opinions and in no way reflect FEBE Ventures’ views or opinions, nor are such views or opinions endorsed or supported by us.