Founder Focus: Cassandra Stavrou of PROPER
In 2011, Cassandra Stavrou and her best friend Ryan joined forces and launched their snacks from Ryan’s flat in London, where they tossed popcorn kernels in a refashioned cement mixer, and packaged up all the boxes themselves. Almost a decade later, PROPER is a staple snack brand – their range of deliciously flavoured popcorn and lentil chips responsible for helping so many of us overcome the dreaded 3pm slump. Vegan, gluten-free, and made using only natural ingredients, the team behind this certified B Corp are all about snacking Done Properly.
Having been recently awarded an MBE at the beginning of the year, now seemed like a perfect time to catch up with Cass, and learn more about the business values of this forward-thinking founder.
What was your eureka moment?
I had my ubiquitous light bulb moment about 10 years ago now. I was working in Soho at the time and would watch every day as people would go and buy snacks for their 3pm slump. They’d either go for a chocolate bar that left them feeling guilty or a rice cake that left them feeling dissatisfied. I wanted to create snacks where you didn’t have to compromise. Popcorn was where I started.
I went home and told my mum my idea. Being the amazing woman that she is, she immediately gave me her full support, reminding me that the last present my father bought me before he passed away was a popcorn machine. It was this little bit of serendipity that gave me the conviction to quit my job and give PROPER a go.
What is your elevator pitch?
Well first I’d give them our snacks to try…
Then I’d say that PROPER is the UK’s number one, independent snack company and leads the way in healthier snacking. We put taste first. Our snacks are 100% plant-based, gluten free and lower in calories. You can find us in 15 countries around the world, and we sell over 4 million packs of popcorn and lentil chips every month. That’s more than one every second! In fact, in 2018 we were ranked by the FT as the fifth-fastest-growing company in Europe.
But we believe in growing in the right way. As a business we’re obsessed with culture. We prioritise our team, the planet and everyone else around it. We know that there is a better way to do business.
How did you test your idea?
I actually made my first batches of popcorn in a cement mixer! I needed to find a way to tumble the popcorn. I refashioned a cement mixer that was perfect for mixing the corn with spices and ingredients. I was watching Top Gear and they spoke about car paint spraying as the finest mist possible. So stole the idea, bought a kit and used that to mist the oil.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start a business on their own?
Start. We’re all armchair entrepreneurs, but you have to get going. Be prepared to take a risk. It’s 10%, and 90% execution.
Do you have a mentor or are you one?
I love mentoring. I get my kicks from seeing talented people create something tangible from their ideas.
This year we’re relaunching our Pop In initiative, where we invite business owners into our office for mentoring during Global Entrepreneurship Week. With everything that’s gone on recently, we want to make it bigger, bolder and more effective for our ‘founders’ so they can thrive in their industries. We have some hurdles to overcome, since there’s still a lot of uncertainty about whether we can host the scheme at PROPER HQ.
I mentor businesses on a monthly basis, as well as through Pop In, and it’s really rewarding to see the alumni go from strength-to-strength. These start-ups are the ones that will apply pressure to change the status quo and move things forward, and we want to help them overcome the inevitable early hurdles.
What’s your plan B?
I have new ideas every day.
What is the most worthwhile investment (time, energy, money) that you have made?
Unquestionably people. Just finding brilliant people who are better than you.
What one failure are you glad you experienced?
You have to be prepared to fail. We should all be more vocal about times when we try and, for whatever reason, it doesn’t work out.
There are hundreds of examples. Take Crunch Corn. It was a new snack we launched a few years ago. People loved the taste of it, but for a couple of reasons it just didn’t work out. It cost us time and money. But we channelled all the lessons into PROPERCHIPS, which has turned out to be a big success. You just have to dust yourself off and keep innovating in order to create the best product possible. We try. We test. We try again.
What is coming up for PROPER?
Last year, we launched PROPERCHIPS – our first move beyond popcorn, and the first of many. Our move to PROPER marked an incredibly new exciting era for us as a business and allows us to play in new and exciting snacking categories in the future. We’ve also got our eyes on further international expansion.
What book would you recommend that everyone reads and why?
Winnie the Pooh. Tells you everything you need to know about relationships and perseverance.
How do you find balance in your daily life?
That’s something I really struggle with. PROPER can easily take up every waking thought. It’s not revolutionary, but I find moving, getting outside and being silly always help.