For me it was all a question of when, and not if, I would start a business after I decided at age 14 it was what I wanted to do. I had many different ideas with varying degrees of success before I started Propercorn. I had a frozen yoghurt company called Yeti at one point, and a dating site, and god knows what else. I came up with the idea for Propercorn when I was working in Soho and noticed everyone’s energy slumping at around 3pm every day. This was 10 years ago, before healthy snacking took off and there wasn’t anything around that delivered both health and taste. It was always a compromise – you’d get a chocolate bar and feel guilty, or you’d buy a rice cake and then buy a chocolate bar anyway. I wanted to create a snack full of flavour that happened to be good for you and I thought popcorn was the product to do that with because no matter where you go in the world everyone understands what popcorn is. There’s a huge amount of nostalgia around it, a lot of childhood memories.
When I told my mum about my idea when I got home that day, she reminded me that my dad had bought me a popcorn machine when I was 16 and it had been sitting in our loft ever since. In fact, it was the last gift he gave me before he passed away and it seemed like as good a sign as any so the next day I quit my job and got cracking. I don’t believe in fate but it was a good reason – I think we’re all armchair entrepreneurs, the difference between that and starting a business is just starting, and so that gave me my extra bit of conviction to start.
Flavour is so important at Proper and I am still 100 per cent involved in the creation of flavours – we’re always looking for new ideas. The starting point for us is the people who eat our snacks, so we’re constantly asking for recommendations and suggestions from our community and that’s where the best ideas come from. Other than that we make sure to stay in touch with what’s happening more broadly in culture, whether it be in the restaurant industry or in design, or colour trends. My favourite flavour changes with my mood, I could never pick one above the others, it would be like choosing between my children. At the moment I’m particularly enjoying peanut butter and almond, but I have different favourites as the months or weeks go by.
Not only are we constantly bringing out new flavours but we’ve also recently moved Propercorn into Proper and we’ve launched a new range of snacks, the first of which is Proper Chips, a collection of lentil chips that are vegan, under 100 calories and are delicious. Our aim is to become the world’s biggest, healthiest snack company. And I’m proud to say that Proper is now the biggest independent snack brand in the UK – I figured out that we sell four million packs a month, which works out as more than a pack a second!
One of the keys of our success is definitely our team – they are the lifeblood of Proper. Our success just wouldn’t exist without the people who have helped us; it has been a real team effort. I am obsessed with making Proper the best possible place to work; yes, there’s the obligatory ping-pong table and yoga classes but it’s far subtler than that, it’s making sure people feel like they are learning, that they are empowered and that there’s total trust. What I mean by total trust is that we give employees unlimited time off after they’ve worked for us for two years, and I have no idea how that is used because we don’t track it – the minute you start tracking it, there’s a lack of trust. We all have lunch together every day and eating at your desk is discouraged – lots of things like that promote real empathy across the company.
The advice I’d give any woman who wants to start their own company – and this can be true of anyone but is particularly true of women – is that often we can have a tendency to worry about what other people think a bit too much. I’m quite a sensitive person and the benefit of that is in the office, I can tell you who’s feeling frustrated, who’s not feeling motivated. And the difficulty with that is that I can overthink some of those things and I need to remember that everyone is dealing with their own stuff and aren’t analysing everything I’m doing. Trying to let go of little anxieties is so important, it helps me focus on the big things and move so much quicker.
Setting up in the manufacturing industry was tough as a woman when I did it 10 years ago. I was patronised and not taken seriously, but I guess I’m lucky in that it just made me dig my heels in further. Only weeks ago, I found myself in meetings where financial questions were directed to the man in the room, and product development questions were directed to me. It’s infuriating; it absolutely has a long way to go.
I think we need more great role models and especially visible female role models that women can relate to. I’d say the vast majority of people who ask me for advice or mentorship are women and that’s great, because that means that women are getting access to female entrepreneurs; but I would love some more men to recognise successful businesswomen as a source of inspiration. I love mentoring and I love giving advice – I’m so lucky to continue to get such amazing advice from people who are really generous with their time, and so I’m trying to do that in return. At the start of the year – on International Women’s Day – I pledged to mentor 70 per cent women this year versus men, because I want to make sure I am making more time to lift other women up.
Cassandra Stavrou recently took part in the Marriott In Focus talk series about leadership. The talk she took part in, Turning Your Ambition Into Reality is available to listen to here.