From cold calling and packing boxes in his living room, to running one of Europe’s fastest growing companies. A desire to do things ‘Properly’ has taken Ryan Kohn and his business partner Cassandra Stavrou a long way.
The notorious 3pm slump. Stomachs rumble, eyes get heavier, and as we reach for sugar-laden pick-me-ups, we run the risk of following suit. But for Cassandra Stavrou, co-founder of Proper (formerly Propercorn), it was 3pm when the penny dropped.
She noticed that finding a snack that hit the sweet-spot between great taste and guilt-free contents was a struggle. So, inspired by the popcorn machine that her late father gave her, and her childhood memories of making the snack, the idea for Propercorn was born.
Crossing professional paths with an old friend
To kickstart her aspirations of revolutionising the snacking market, Cassandra began looking for a business partner in 2010. And at the same time, by a stroke of fate, her close friend and serial entrepreneur, Ryan Kohn, was on the lookout for his next investment opportunity.
“Initially, I was really nervous about starting a business with a very close friend”, Ryan told us, “I find it hard to distinguish what’s my gut, and what’s hope. But getting involved in Propercorn – taking a cinema favourite and putting it in shops – it felt like a good idea.”
Their year-long search for a UK manufacturer did little to settle Ryan’s nerves, but then, in 2011, Propercorn was launched. Initially, there were four flavours, ranging from the filmgoers’ staples, ‘Sweet & Salty’ and ‘Lightly Sea Salted’, to the more daring ‘Fiery Worcester Sauce & Sun-Dried Tomato’, and ‘Sour Cream & Chive’.
These were flavours nobody associated with popcorn, with calorie counts nobody could believe, all in colourful, eye-grabbing packaging that was nothing short of gorgeous.
Propercorn had set themselves apart in the market, and when Ryan got in touch with another friend who worked at Google, asking if they’d be interested in stocking their popcorn, it led to Google’s head chef tasting – and almost inevitably – loving their products.
After that, it was a done deal. And Google’s London office was forever etched into Propercorn’s history as Ryan and Cassandra’s first customer.
How’s that for a way to start things off?
Google’s favourite snack
With 48 snacks on offer at Google’s offices, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be a tough market to crack. But not for Propercorn. They quickly became Google’s fastest selling snack, and this popularity gave them the confidence to talk to – and win over – other big-name brands. And in the food world, they don’t come much bigger than Tesco and Waitrose.
Finding their products lining the shelves of more and more major retailers was the springboard Ryan and Cassandra needed. Their sales soared by north of 200% a year over three years, reaching £9.5m in 2015 – a far cry from cold calling and packing boxes in Ryan’s living room in 2012.
7,000,000 reasons to fly
In 2016, Ryan and Cassandra received their first major investment as JamJar and the private equity firm, Piper, injected £7m into the business. Since then, they’ve been on a seemingly unstoppable rise to the top of the ever-booming healthy snack category, selling 4 million packs of Propercorn a month and becoming one of the fastest growing companies in Europe.
JamJar is a venture capital firm set up by Richard Reed, Jon Wright and Adam Balon – the three smoothie savants that founded Innocent, which had us asking:
Ryan, how did that deal happen?
“We got introduced to Richard Reed early on. We had this really nice connection with him from an early stage, and I’d always looked up to him at conferences. Adam Balon, one of the other Innocent founders, formed a relationship with Piper, and then JamJar and Piper were both on our case.”
“What’s important when you get investment is you get on with that person, they support you through difficult times and not just hold your hand when things are great. That was definitely evident with JamJar and Piper.”
But success can’t all be about who you know. There has to be substance for everything to click. And as Ryan and Cassandra champion their mantra of ‘Done Properly’ in everything they do (including their office’s doorbell), they’ve made sure their business has plenty of that.
Bold, beautiful branding
“When we started, we were quite lucky because healthy snacking was on the rise. A few companies had tried the popcorn avenue, which helped us grow the category – because we probably couldn’t have done that by ourselves. But what helped us win against the bigger, better resourced brands like Walkers and Tyrrells, was our own brand”, Ryan told us.
“Try and liken your brand to a person – the more depth you create, the more likeable it becomes, the more popular you get.”
Every single product that Propercorn send out has a message on the back; an insight into their story and how the brand began. And every message ends with “I hope you love it”, and a neatly swirling signature that reads: “Cassandra”.
As we finished the first of many boxes of Propercorn in our office, we noticed another small but powerful touch to create the depth Ryan mentioned. At the bottom, there was one line, which simply said: “Thank you for putting us on your shelves”. It’s branding, tone of voice and an appreciation of your customer, ‘Done Properly’.
“Being disruptive is something the big brands don’t do.”
And it’s certainly something Propercorn have never shied away from. In 2015 they launched ‘Project Pattern’, wrapping dozens of London double-decker buses, and turning the red icons of the capital’s roads into bright pink and yellow, popcorn-patterned, mobile advertising boards.
The campaign won awards for its effectiveness, and in May 2019, just one month before they re-branded as ‘Proper’ to coincide with the launch of their lentil chips range, Ryan and Cassandra brought Project Pattern back. This time, in a 33ft hot pink cement mixer – an ode to their humble, yet resourceful beginnings:
“Our first popcorn samples were made in a repurposed cement mixer because we had no equipment,” Ryan said, “so, in 2019, we wrapped a 33ft cement mixer in our branding, took it round the country and caused some havoc with it”.
Marrying purpose with profit
Right now, Proper are one of roughly 3,200 Certified B Corporations worldwide – but if you’re not familiar with B Corps, what does that mean?
“B Corporation is an organisation that started in the US. It’s about using business for good. People, planet and profit all have the same importance”, Ryan told us.
“Their accreditation evaluates your business on every single factor. You have to run your business and look after your people in a certain way. And you have to score 80 points or over to qualify.”
“It’s a marker in the sand for the journey that we’re on. Every business is going to have to start taking these sustainability measures in the future. It shows us what we’re doing well, but also shows us where we can improve.”
“Our first B Corp score was 86, but I’m hoping our next score will be over 100.”
Ryan’s an ambassador for B Corp now, which is fitting because their accreditation is all about looking at every aspect of your business and doing it ‘Properly’. But this isn’t the first time he’s used his business prowess as a force for good.
He had his first taste of entrepreneurship at university in Leeds, where he started a hip-hop night with his friends, complete with break dancers and beatboxers. As the nights became more and more popular, they expanded out of Leeds, and when Ryan was just 21, they were employing 400 people and doing 16 club nights a week, across 11 cities.
That taste was all he needed. Ryan was hooked.
He quit university after two years, ran the club night for a little while, and then, after learning about the industry at a property development firm in London, he started ‘Living In Space’ in 2007 – an interior design, build and development company focused on helping people to live in the most sustainable way. In 2009, he launched the ‘London for London’ campaign, with every penny donated to organisations addressing violence amongst young people in the capital. And in 2017, he launched ’10 for 10’, raising over $215,000 for Syrian refugees in just two months.
“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough”
Of course, Ryan and Proper’s journey hasn’t escaped the occasional slip-up or challenge, and he was as comfortable going into depth about them, as he was his accomplishments – yet another example of his humble, honest nature.
Their 2016 release of ‘Crunch Corn’ aimed to make a splash in the nuts sector with ‘half-popped’ kernels. But put shortly: it didn’t. And it ended up costing the business around £400,000.
Ryan also spoke about the challenge of maintaining the ‘family culture’ as they scaled up from 5 to 40 people, and the need to have difficult conversations with people who’d been in the business since the early days:
“When there are difficult conversations to have with members of the team that the business has maybe outgrown, or their enthusiasm has faded – that’s really difficult. The human element is the hardest. Creating a wonderful culture is great when everyone’s having a great time, but when the difficult conversations need to be had, it’s hard because we’ve built really strong relationships with these people.”
The measure of any successful entrepreneur will always be their ability to ride out and bounce back from the highs and lows of owning a business. It’s not about getting everything perfect, every single time, because as one of our guests reminded us at the end of Ryan’s story: “perfection kills momentum.” And risk-taking, learning from your experiences, and going again is essential for staying ahead of the pack – something Proper don’t need any lessons in.
What’s next for Proper?
“Around 13-14% of our sales are international – it’s an area we definitely want to grow. But we don’t want to just plant flags and go into as many territories as possible. We’re focused on nailing one or two before we go onto others. They’re our Tier 1 countries and they get most of the business and the resources.”
So, next stop: The World. And with a deliciously innovative product, constantly evolving, eternally beautiful branding, a B Corp Certification and their undying commitment to making sure everything’s ‘Done Properly’ – what’s to stop them?