If you aren’t familiar with Propercorn then you must have been living on a different planet for the last couple of years, because it’s the new ‘IT’ brand in snacking.
Popcorn has officially moved out of the cinema and is being eaten as a low-calorie alternative to crisps and savoury snacks, with inventive flavours such as Fiery Worcester Sauce, Sun-Dried Tomato, Sour Cream & Chive and Lightly Sea Salted; we fell in love at first bite.
And as soon as we saw Propercorn being munched by the fashion pack at London Fashion Week, we knew this brand was going to be big. We caught up with Propercorn’s founder, the lovely Cassandra Stavrou, to find out how she launched a super brand in such a short space of time, and her top tips for start-up success.
Cassandra, you’ve done so well to achieve all that you have in such as short space of time. Did you secure funding to launch Propercorn or did you fund the launch yourself?
In it’s infancy the business was initially funded through my own personal savings of around £10,000. In order to save this amount, I moved back home to live with my mum and save on rent and spent my evenings and weekends working in a local pub, doing temp jobs and taking commissions for paintings in order to save some money to get things off the ground.
We then received some initial seed money of £30k in order to satisfy minimum order quantities on some of the aspects of the product, and then around 8 months into trading a further small sum from close family and friends to help with some marketing spend and hiring. It was a very informal process and built on the shared vision and belief in where the business could go. The most important factor was that there was trust between both parties and aligned goals.
You used to work for the creative agency BBH; does that mean you did all of your own packaging and branding?
My first job was a junior role at BBH but not in a creative role. I learned a valuable lesson when I spent a large amount of my savings with a notable designer on the initial artwork and branding…while he did a fantastic job it just didn’t feel right and seemed detached from my own vision. At the eleventh hour I decided to start again and designed the packaging myself and then a friend who was an illustrator brought to life the narrative on the bottom of the packs. It was far more personal and remained true to where the idea had started. All of our creative output begins within the team and we now very rarely outsource anything.
How did you take your idea from your kitchen to being tested and manufactured commercially?
Finding the right manufacturer was an incredibly challenging process. The world of food manufacturing is very male dominated and it was a real struggle to get people to take a young girl with no proven track record or experience in this industry seriously. In addition, there were very few places in the UK that could make seasoned popcorn and nowhere could do it in the way that I wanted. In the end, I built a great relationship with a guy who believed in the idea and was prepared to invest in his equipment to satisfy the recipes requirements. The first batch of experimenting was done on a fashioned cement mixer that tumbled the popcorn while I used a spray gun to spritz on the seasonings and oil!! Fortuantely, it’s a little more professional these days.
How long did the whole process take from idea through to Propercorn hitting the shelves?
Invariably things always take three times as long as you think they will and cost twice as much too! It took me three years from when I had the idea to then seeing PROPERCORN on the shelves – which was Google HQ! An amazing first customer.
Do you have a business mentor or anyone to give you advice on the industry and next steps?
The person I will always go to for advice first is my business partner Ryan. We are incredibly lucky to have each other for support and him joining me in the adventure was the best decision I have made. Being aware of your own strengths and limitations is so important and we are able to share the load, inject double the amount of energy and sometimes have a little moan when things are a bit testing.
You’re stocked in a number of well known retailers including Planet Organic and Waitrose; how did you approach these stores?
It was a classic case of chasing any contact, following every lead, persistently cold calling and pretty much leaving no stone un-turned. There isn’t a fast track that I am aware of, you have to put in the hours and the graft to get people to take you seriously and most importantly always be grateful for people’s time.
How did you raise the funds to meet the national distribution demands of these big retailers? Did you have working capital in place to bridge any gap between paying your manufacturer or suppliers and being paid by the supermarket?
We are very vigilant on our payment terms and especially in the beginning it is important that customers demonstrate empathy that you are a start-up and the importance of managing your cash flow. We also have developed a good relationship with our bank and set structures in place that aid our growth.
Did you have your supply and distribution plan firmly in place before approaching these suppliers?
Absolutely, behind the brand it is paramount that we have a robust and efficient back-end to the business, without this customers won’t take you seriously.
Did you do a lot of negotiating on the wholesale price?
A bit of healthy negotiation is needed but ultimately you won’t have a very long relationship if it doesn’t work for both parties. We want the deal to be successful for our customer too.
Many suppliers require you to undertake advertising and marketing to promote the product to ensure it sells. What marketing have you done to grow and promote the brand?
Up until now we have focused our efforts on more below-the-line grass roots marketing activity. We believe the most effective marketing is to ensure our popcorn is easily accessible (distribution) and that people are able to try it (sampling). Beyond that we are incredibly discerning about what events and initiatives we get involved with and on balance prefer to curate our own activity that is genuinely engaging and offers real value to our audience rather than plastering our logo on other people’s ideas.
Do you plan all of your own marketing and PR in house or do you employ an agency?
It is all done in-house from ideation, strategy and design – although we do sometimes need external specialist like when we wanted all of our illustrative elements to be made into 6ft wooden structures we needed to find a highly skilled carpenter.
How valuable is social media when starting a new company?
It is a fantastic way of speaking with our customers directly and letting people know what we are up to. But, I also think it’s important to not lose sight of our core focus; making sure our product is as good as it can possibly be. The number of likes on Facebook or followers on Twitter should never become more important than that. It’s a simple point, but I do see businesses who regularly lose sight of this.
What do you love about having your own company?
I love my job and I think the thing I am often most proud of is our team. We are all incredibly committed to keeping our standards very high and I am continually bowled over by the level of integrity and care that every member of our team demonstrate. It really does make the whole business feel that bit more special.
What have you learnt along the way?
Trust your instincts; in the age of analysis and data it is easy to lose sight of the gut instinct, but it’s incredibly important not to.
What tips can you offer someone looking to launch their own food product/brand?
Clarify why you are wanting to start your own business – it’s not an easy road and having that driver, the ‘why’ is what will keep you going when the inevitable hurdles and obstacles arise.
What’s next for Propercorn?
Where do I start! We have some exciting ideas around new flavours, packaging innovation and new products. We are also one of the only food brands that can comfortably sit in a lifestyle space, something we want to explore further as we grow. One example of this is our clothing, we had so many requests from people at our pop-up summer event on where to buy our T-shirts we have decided to launch a small collection of them! It’s something we never planned to do and has happened completely organically but it highlights our dedication to make everything as good as they can possibly be. Rather than putting a logo on a t-shirt we wanted our staff to wear something they would genuinely be happy to wear.