Every day in the Propercorn office, without fail, the George Michael song ‘Careless Whisper’ is blasted out of the speakers at 1pm. “I don’t know how it started. I think it just got played once, and it just kind of stuck, and became the Pavlov’s dog of announcing food.” says Cassandra Stavrou, the brand’s co-founder.
“But it means we all sit down every day over food and have proper conversations and build relationships.”
This is the Propercorn philosophy in a nutshell. An emphasis on relationships, a balance between work and play, an obsession with food, and a small dash of silliness. And it’s this unique formula that has seen the company become the UK’s number one popcorn brand since its founding in 2011 — a year when behemoths Tyrell’s and Metcalfe’s also put out their first bags of corn.
Along with her co-founder Ryan Kohn, Cassandra has successfully re-positioned popcorn from a niche snack trodden into the carpets of regional cinemas to a healthy, delicious alternative to crisps and chocolate (it’s no surprise that Propercorn quickly became the official snack of London Fashion Week.)
But what lessons can we take from the rise and rise of Propercorn? We sat down with Cassandra and Ryan to talk popcorn necklaces, the power of the Google canteen, and finding inspiration in Top Gear.
Be creative in your problem solving
“When you’re starting out you don’t have unlimited budgets and resources, so you have to be creative in the way that you get things done,” Cassandra says.
“I had moved back to my mum’s house once I had the idea, and I was working out how I could make these flavours in her kitchen.
“The world of manufacturing wasn’t quite set up to season popcorn in the way that I wanted it to be seasoned, and so I decided to get a cement mixer, and I tried to tumble the seasonings in there.
“Then I wanted a very fine way to apply the oil. And I remember watching Top Gear, and the way that you spray paint a car is by applying a very fine mist. And so I bought a car paint sprayer. It was pretty basic but it kinda worked, and the principles today are the same.”
First and foremost: get selling
“The advice I always say to entrepreneurs when they’re starting is: get selling.” says Ryan.
“The product won’t be perfect, the brand won’t be perfect. As long as you start bringing revenue into your business, the rest will fall into place. Just focus on growing that revenue. You could spend a million quid on advertising in the UK and only a fraction of the population will see what you’re doing. The best way of marketing is selling your product and having it out there.
“We had this phrase: ‘the business will live or die by the sales’. Anyone that joined the business, it was the first thing we said to them. The first few hires we made were sales people.”
Use the data at your fingertips
“At the start, we would use every single little sales snippet of data available to us,” says Ryan.
“In the Google offices, where we were first stocked, we were the fastest selling snack. So we’d go to the next customer and say we’re the fastest moving snack in Google, why not try some free packs. That got people interested, and it just kind of rolled like that from there.”
A good pitch is about empathy
“So many people turn up to a meeting and have their pitch, and just talk at someone for an hour about how brilliant they are,” Cassandra says. “If you’re on the receiving end of that — day in, day out — it can be quite dull.
“You need to find a way to cut through the noise and be memorable, whether that be something as simple as turning up to meetings on a hot day with lollies.
“Every meeting we’ve ever gone into, we’ve started from their perspective — asking ourselves what they’re trying to achieve, and how Propercorn can help with that. Start from a place of empathy, and then add a little sparkle — something like popcorn necklaces, which we used to do.”
“I remember about six months before we launched, two huge competitors entered the market,” says Cassandra. “It was Metcalfe’s and Tyrrells. And I remember going home to my mum in floods of tears and saying ‘it’s happened.’
“But invariably it was the best thing that happened, and competition is a brilliant thing. Anyone who’s starting a business better hope there’s competition out there — it creates a marketplace and it creates a demand. And our job is simply to be the best.”
(Propercorn is now the number one selling popcorn in the UK. It sells a pack every second — more than the next biggest competitors combined.)
Attitude is everything
“We look for people who are the same values as us.” says Cassandra. People who are positive and don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s only popcorn, after all.”
“For me, if we’re hiring someone they need to be three things: positive, passionate and bright,” says Ryan. “We’ll always make mistakes. And actually we often say: If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. But if you’re positive, you’ll know that there’s a way around it. If you’re passionate, you’ll care enough to fix the problem. And if you’re bright you’ll know how.”