Shaper: Cassandra Stavrou

Show aired on 30th December 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The lilting sound of Blue Lab Beats with Keep Moving. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss. Thank you very much for joining. Jazz Shapers is the place – I hope you know this by now – where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them as if by magic we bring someone who is shaping the world of business and we call them Business Shapers. I am really pleased to say that my Business Shaper today is Cassandra Stavrou. She is the co-founder at Propercorn. That’s Propercorn and they are the premium popcorn business which is taking the UK and at least ten other countries by storm. You are going to be hearing lots from her very shortly. In addition to hearing from Cassandra you will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your business and then we’ve got the music and its fantastic today. We have got the one and only Stan Getz in there, Eliane Elias and this from Mr Ray Charles.

That was Ray Charles with Unchain My Heart. This is Jazz Shapers as I said earlier and Cassandra Stavrou is my Business Shaper today; she is the co-founder of Propercorn and they are a business that sells popcorn, special popcorn, gluton free popcorn, amazing taste. Hello, how are you?

Cassandra Stavrou
Hello. Hi nice to meet you.

Elliot Moss
Nice to meet you too. Thank you very much for joining us. Tell me Cassandra how you got into the world of popcorn? What’s a nice person like you doing making popcorn?

Cassandra Stavrou
I’m a funny journey I guess. You know I have always wanted to run my own business for as long as I can remember and I think we are all entrepreneurs to an extent and I had various ideas up until kind of Propercorn and felt there was a real opportunity to create a snack that was full of flavour, really satisfying but also healthier for you than a packet of crisps. My father died when I was sixteen and I went home and I told my mum about the idea, this was about eight years ago, and she reminded me that one of the last presents he had bought me was a popcorn maker. Call it fate or serendipity, it was a wonderful moment that gave me the extra conviction to quit my job, move back home and give it a go.

Elliot Moss
And that was about what six years ago, six, seven years ago?

Cassandra Stavrou
It was about eight years ago and then it took about two years to get it to market.

Elliot Moss
Okay so you had a normal job, you were working in an advertising agency and you have this idea but you don’t really have a plan, you just kind of know you want to go and do it and then you stop and you say that’s it. That’s a massive decision to make and we will come onto you know the intricacies of the popcorn but why do you think you had the courage to do that? Why you?

Cassandra Stavrou
Yeah I mean all it courageous or absolute stupidity – it’s one of the two. I think I had, I really believed in the idea, I really kind of saw I guess it’s the perfect storm if you see an opportunity in the market you believe there is a real need for it, that you are offering something different and valuable to the end consumer and it was something that I really wanted to do. You know as I said before I have always wanted to run my own business and this just felt like the perfect kind of coming together of various things that you need I guess to give you that confidence to quit your job or whatever you need to do to take that risk.

Elliot Moss
And today the Propercorn brand is in as I mentioned earlier around ten countries?

Cassandra Stavrou
Yes so UK is our kind of principal market but we are also in other countries around Europe like Holland, Germany, Ireland and yeah it’s been an amazing journey, we have grown very quickly over six years which has been fantastic.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out much more about Cassandra Stavrou and her role, her lunacy, her courage, whatever you want to call it in actually creating a business which is now flourishing and is one of I think the top five fastest growing independent companies across Europe if we believe the stats and we are going to believe the stats.

Cassandra Stavrou
You should do.

Elliot Moss
Good, we will. Stay with me for much more conversation with her but right now time for some more music, Eliane Elias with Oye Como Va.

Eliane Elias with Oye Como Va. I am talking to Cassandra Stavrou today; she is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers. She is the co-founder of Propercorn and Propercorn I love this line, it says here ‘Done properly full stop’. Now in the world of food, and there is a lot of competition, it’s really important that you stand out. Tell me a little bit about the initial journey because I want to talk about those first few years before you sold any packets of popcorn, the initial journey around getting that look right.

Cassandra Stavrou
Yeah so when you know I moved back home and you have to get the various parts of the business kind of moving in tandem. So you know your cashflow, the operations, your manufacturing but you know really right up there is the kind of the design, the look and feel of the brand and I knew that the packaging was so critical as people have a split second to make a decision at the shelf edge. I saved about £10,000 by moving back home and doing pub work at evenings and weekends and things like that and I decided to spend £6,000 of that with a packaging designer. So you know relative to what my savings it was a huge amount and very talented designer and he spent you know a few months working on it and I got the designs back and they just didn’t feel right. They were beautiful but they just didn’t feel authentic and I think it’s so important that the brand is authentic and I guess decided to essentially start again. I sort of doodled them myself on Powerpoint and got my mate who is an illustrator to do the illustrations at the bottom and we cobbled it together and actually it was imperfect but it was right and I think actually our branding has really set us apart and so I am sort of validated now that it was the right decision but at the time it was a big risk.

Elliot Moss
And obviously I mean £6,000 that you then said basically I am not going to pursue it, 60% of the savings you had made through hard graft while you were at home again, which is always difficult when you are a young adult going back and living with your mum or whatever you might have to do…

Cassandra Stavrou
Absolutely.

Elliot Moss
…that is very brave and how just answer that question you said I did, it just didn’t feel right. What didn’t feel right and how did you know what was right for you?

Cassandra Stavrou
Well often you know within any business it’s so important that what you are creating is absolutely right for your end consumer and in our instance I was kind of my end consumer so I was able to be very intuitive about the decisions I was making and I guess the packaging it’s just so critical, it’s what people see day in day out and it needs to stand out, its needs to be vibrant, it needs to feel interesting and the whole brand needs to be set up in a way that it feels kind of authentic. I don’t know if that’s bit of a boast but it all needs to come together to the same point which…

Elliot Moss
And that makes sense but what you are really saying is you went with your instincts because you were thinking would I like this?

Cassandra Stavrou
Yeah, exactly.

Elliot Moss
Would I actually go for this? Would it… and I think that is really, really important. One other obstacle, just tell me before we go to the travel, one big obstacle in those early years before you actually set the business up where you thought I need to not do this, I am actually not going to set this business up?

Cassandra Stavrou
Well I mean the world of manufacturing you know especially sort of seven years ago tends to be kind of big burly men in industrial estates up and down the UK and I think being a young girl with no proven track record sort of knocking on doors, getting someone to take a punt was really difficult and I got a lot of doors shut in my face. I wanted to season the popcorn in a way that it had that real impact of flavour and it was difficult to get anyone to give me a chance. So you have to be resourceful when you are starting a business so I decided to get a cement mixer, re-fashion it with steel so it was hygienic and I remember watching Top Gear and the way they use to spray paint cars is the finest mist that you can get and so our first samples were me, a cement mixer and a handheld car spraying kit but it worked and I guess fast forward to today you know we sell three million packets a month but it’s the same principle, it’s just a bit more shiny and new. But that taught me a lot.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out what else Cassandra Stavrou has learnt on her journey towards creating a business which one day I am sure will be turning over at least thirty million quid a year, at least that’s their plan for 2019. Latest travel coming up in a couple of minutes but before that some words and wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your burgeoning business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliott Moss. Every Saturday I talk to someone in the hot seat they call it Business Shaper and they probably don’t feel the heat because they are very very talented and experienced people who have set businesses up against the odds sometimes with courage and they have gone and done amazing things. The person doing amazing things in front of me is Cassandra Stavrou. She is the co-founder of Propercorn and they make delicious tasting popcorn. I can say that because I’ve had some and quite a lot, not today but in the past. Cassandra the business now is moving, you’ve found your person who didn’t have to sit there with a spray paint and in the steel you know the equivalent of your cement mixer and all that and now you are starting to get a scale. You are now it’s not just you and you’re starting to build your business, just tell me about those first choices you made about the people that you brought in. What was the criteria in your head in terms of the people you wanted to surround you?

Cassandra Stavrou
God I think anyone who has run a business will kind of hopefully agree with me that the people decisions are some of the most important decisions you will ever make. It’s absolutely a team effort and you know I encourage everyone to kind of hire people ether are better and smarter and way more capable then yourself. I guess we tried to really hire people on attitude, especially in those first few years, versus experience and that’s not to say we don’t kind of value experience and how important it can be but it really is especially you know when you are a fast growing business it’s that attitudinal you know self-starter, motivated and can think creatively about problems and challenges because invariably there will be hundreds of them coming your way and so it was really about trying to bring people in that shared the same values as us you know entrepreneurial, really passionate about what they do.

Elliot Moss
You strike me as really easy going…

Cassandra Stavrou
Thanks.

Elliot Moss
…I’m sure there is an intensity to you as well but the forty or so people now in the business how would they describe you?

Cassandra Stavrou
God that’s a great question. I would hope that they would say I was a team player. We try to avoid too much hierarchy in our business and really empower people so they would probably say I was a control freak, which is something I am really working on and trying to sort of step away from the detail and really focus on kind of you know the three year, the three year vision.

Elliot Moss
There is a contradiction though isn’t there in the sense that you have to be on it, you have to be obsessive, you have to be a bit of a control freak if you care and you want it to work. So how do you see going forward that you are going to be able to balance that because I hear that from many people I talk to. There is that sense of just everything has got to be looked at properly because if you don’t then that extra 0.01% won’t work. What are you going to be doing to not be the control freak that you think you are or are you secretly intending to carry on being a control freak?

Cassandra Stavrou
It’s a real challenge because you know it’s your baby and you know I care about this business so much and I am as excited for it as I was seven years ago. I think that you have to understand when you have got to good enough. This kind of pursuit for perfection can actually slow you down and I think it’s important that you recognise when you have kind of hit what you need to do to kind of solve that challenge or win that new sale and move on. Perfectionism actually isn’t a good thing to kind of take with you into business. So I hope that I have that kind of bigger picture and that’s what kind of keeps me from getting too into the detail but you know invariably you do and sort of spend those kind of extra hours focussing on the little things that probably no one will ever notice or realise but it matters to me, it matters to the team and that is a good starting point.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my very honest conversation here with Cassandra Stavrou, that’s the co-founder of Propercorn talking about the reality of being a control freak. Time for some more music and its Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto with Doralice.

That was Doralice from the brilliant combination of Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, proper Jazz Shapers. Cassandra Stavrou is my Business Shaper and we have been talking about the trials and tribulations of getting going, the importance of people, the reality of having a condition called being a control freak but I think that comes with the territory. You are now in a position where obviously you have just taken on investment around eighteen months ago or so last year with actually a previous Jazz Shaper and Business Shaper John Wright of JamJar Investments, one of the investors. What does that give you? Does that give you both freedom and pressure? How do you see it when someone comes in and says here is some money for a bit of equity or whatever it might be? How do you personally feel about it?

Cassandra Stavrou
I think we were lucky in that because of the visibility of the brand, we actually courted quite a lot of attention when we were seeking investment and for anyone that is raising finance the advice I would give is you know look beyond the cheque and actually think about the added value and the relationship that you are walking into. It’s so important that from day one you have a shared vision and a shared goal otherwise the relationship will fall at the first hurdle and then what is the added value, the advice, the experience, you know the example that you gave in terms of John Wright and the Innocent founders. You know they have been there, they’ve done that, they’ve got the T shirt as it were so we were able to draw on that experience and that creates value beyond just the finance. So it’s really important to approach it in that way and that there is a level of trust as well. It’s a relationship so there has to be trust and I think there is lots of horror stories of you know the effect of bringing PE or finance into… that kind of investment into your business. I think we have got a really balanced relationship because we took that view early on that that was going to be the demands that we wanted from the investor and it’s a great – you know board meetings in our instance is brilliant because it holds us to account, myself and my business partner Ryan, it’s that kind of monthly marker in the sand where we need to kind of get our ducks in a row and be able to demonstrate that what we said we were going to do we have gone and done and it’s just that extra little bit of responsibility which when you are transitioning from start up to SME is actually really welcome.

Elliot Moss
There are very grown up things Cassandra and you are very young…

Cassandra Stavrou
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
…in the sense that it’s like talking to you know the equivalent of a footballer who is eighteen but playing for England or something. I mean you are you know a young entrepreneur, there are many more I think you were named in the Maserati 100 entrepreneurs to watch and you have had various other accolades. Do you sometimes go is this me, is this my life or not? Do you not even have time to think about it or does it just feel like you are in a flow and of course it’s you and this is what you were meant to do and so on?

Cassandra Stavrou
The honest answer is I don’t stop to think about that because we are moving so quickly and there is so much to do and there is a million and one things to kind of you know think about and that is sort of not something I focus on. I definitely have moments where I am blagging it in fact probably a lot of the time, but that’s part of the gig. You are always going to be stepping one foot further into the unknown as the business grows and you have to just have a view when you start a business that it’s a bit of a blag to put it eloquently and that’s fine because you know I genuinely believe that you can distil most businesses to a kind of a similar set of principles. It isn’t rocket science; it’s about creating demand, giving consumers something valuable and at the right price and creating the brand around it and that you know brings me back to the people as well, bringing the right people into the business to support you along that journey.

Elliot Moss
If only it was as simple as you have just said…

Cassandra Stavrou
No I mean…

Elliot Moss
…if everybody… if it was that simple but no but in the sense that you are right but obviously it takes a special type of person to then actually go and bring that together which is you. Stay with me for more and my final chat with Cassandra Stavrou plus we will be playing some new music from Vincent Herring, that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Vincent Herring with Use Me and for those of you in the know you will know that was Bill Withers originally and I loved the original but I also love that. Cassandra Stavrou is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes and we have covered a lot of ground. I want to talk to you about two things which might seem like they are in opposition for a moment. One is I feel like you are driven by a set of values that are underpinning you and I don’t mean values in the conventional sense but stuff where, and I know this from reading about you, where you are interested in other entrepreneurs, interested in those people having a bit of a leg up. You have talked about caring about employee welfare in an interesting way. It strikes me and there is thing I think you have done, you have created an initiative called Pop-In which is where you get young entrepreneurs to come in and have some office space in your business, why do you care? I mean you are busy, you’re running a business, why is it important to you that other people get a chance?

Cassandra Stavrou
Honestly because it matters. I think you know entrepreneurship and young businesses is the life blood of this country and its really important that we support them and I thankfully was on the receiving end of some of that support and advice and people that were really generous with their time and it makes a massive difference and you know selfishly it actually feels nice to be able to support other people. It’s great for the team so we invited young entrepreneurs into our business to get some head space and work space and also a bit of advice. We all have lunch together every day and it’s actually great for the team to be able to demonstrate some of their learnings and be able to feel like they can give back through working at Propercorn. It all, without kind of getting too fluffy, it is because it matters, it’s important to support the next generation of young businesses in this country.

Elliot Moss
And I guess the flip of that and my question is now going to be about money; if that drives you and feeling good about giving is important what is driving you on the other side apart from it is just this is what you are doing now and you have got a vision which is to create this business? Is the money important and, if it isn’t, what is important?

Cassandra Stavrou
Of course the money is important. The more successful the business is the bigger the platform that we have to do great things. On a personal level it affords me to be able to meet some truly inspiring and incredible people and feel like I am learning and developing. So it’s all kind of wrapped up in the same thing and I actually really you know I really think we are offering something valuable it’s a really fun, delicious snack but it’s better for you and that’s important too.

Elliot Moss
Cassandra it’s been brilliant talk to you, thank you. Thank you for your honesty as well. There aren’t many control freaks that admit they are. I am a bit of one as well though I think in the business world it’s a fabulous thing to a point and of course you know that and I think you are going to be addressing that as you go forward. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Cassandra Stavrou
So my song choice is Louis Prima, Just A Gigolo. It’s an incredibly important song to me and my brother, particularly my brother as it was this song that he shared with our dad who passed away when my brother was eleven. I know that he will be thrilled to hear this dedication to him so this is for you, Emilio.

Elliot Moss
That was Louis Prima with Just A Gigolo, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Cassandra Stavrou. It took a lot of courage for her to leave her paid job and decide to set up her business but she did it. It took creativity to work out how she was going to manufacture the popcorn but she did it. She’s found people along the way with the right attitude in her business that are going to help take it forward and finally she looks to grow it she has talked about and talks about looking beyond the cheque, looking beyond the cheque in terms of funding and finding people that can really help take her business to the next level. Really, really good stuff. Do join me again same time, same place. That’s next Saturday, 9.00am for another edition of Jazz Shapers. Meanwhile stay with us here on Jazz FM because coming up next its Nigel Williams.

Cassandra Stavrou

Cassandra Stavrou founded Propercorn – producers of  ‘popcorn done properly’ – in 2011.

In March 2017, Cassandra and her co-founder, Ryan Kohn, were named in the Maserati 100 list, which showcases “great British entrepreneurs” who are challenging “established players”.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“My father died when I was sixteen and I went home and I told my mum about the idea, she reminded me that one of the last presents he had bought me was a popcorn maker. Call it fate or serendipity, it was a wonderful moment.”

“It needs to be vibrant, it needs to feel interesting and the whole brand needs to be set up in a way that it feels kind of authentic.”

“Our first samples were me, a cement mixer and a handheld car spraying kit. But it worked. Fast forward to today – we sell three million packets a month.”

“Call it courageous or absolute stupidity – it’s one of the two. I guess it’s the perfect storm – if you see an opportunity in the market, you believe there is a real need for it.”

“I think anyone who has run a business will agree with me that the people decisions are some of the most important decisions you will ever make. I encourage everyone to hire people who are better and smarter and way more capable than they are.”

“I really encourage our team to not take life too seriously. It’s just popcorn, we are not saving lives and I think it’s really important that we have that perspective.”

“I think that you have to understand when you have got to ‘good enough’. This kind of pursuit for perfection can actually slow you down.”

“It isn’t rocket science: it’s about creating demand, giving consumers something valuable and at the right price and creating the brand around it.”