How moving home led to a multi-million-pound popcorn firm
Quitting a high-flying graduate job in an ad agency to move back in with your mother, and work in a pub, doesn't seem like an obvious recipe for success.
But it's exactly what Cassandra Stavrou, the co-founder of "posh popcorn" brand Propercorn, did, and so far it's proved a surprisingly good move.
The British brand has emerged as one of the fastest-growing snacks in the UK, stocked everywhere from cafes to supermarkets, and also sold overseas in 10 countries including Germany and Switzerland.
And 32-year-old Cassandra herself recently scooped the New Generation Award at the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman awards.
Though Propercorn has yet to make a profit, it now employs around 40 staff, had takings of £10m last year, and forecasts sales of between £15m to £17m this year.
The London-based company has certainly come a long way since Cassandra, then working in advertising, noticed that her colleagues were always hit by a mid-afternoon slump.
"Everyone wanted a snack but all that was on offer was a rice cake, which is bland and boring, or a chocolate bar that's unhealthy," she says.
"I noticed an opportunity for a snack that was tasty and good for you, and I felt popcorn would be a good vehicle to do that."
She believes serendipity played a role too.
"My father passed away when I was 16, and the last present he bought me was a popcorn machine. I still had it in the box and felt that was a nice extra bit of conviction I needed."
In 2009, aged 26, Cassandra quit her job and moved back in with her mum in London, helped by a deep-rooted entrepreneurial spirit.
"I always knew I wanted to run my own business from a young age," she says.
By working in pubs in the evenings and at weekends, as well as undertaking painting commissions, she managed to scrape together a £10,000 start-up fund.
However, she was surprised by how long it took to launch the brand. "What I thought I could achieve in six months took a lot longer," she admits.
Cassandra's determination to make sure her popcorn was healthy but still tasty was the issue. It meant she had to come up with a way to get the flavouring to stick to the corn without covering it in oil.
In the end, she came up with the idea of spraying the corn with a car spray gun to cover it in a really fine mist of rapeseed oil, and then "tumbling" the corn in a cement mixer with the flavouring to give it an even coverage.
But it took almost a year to find a UK manufacturer able to make it in the way she wanted.
It was around this stage of the business that Ryan Kohn, a friend of her ex-boyfriend, came on board as co-founder. Ryan was, at the time, running his own property development firm.
Cassandra says: "I'd had some advice from Richard Reed from Innocent [the co-founder of the UK drinks company], who said you don't have to do it on your own, it's good to be accountable to someone."
Ryan's mother pumped £30,000 into the business, and they launched Propercorn with four flavours including Sweet & Salty and Sour Cream & Chive in October 2011.
Within six months two private individuals - "friends of friends" is how Ryan and Cassandra describe them - invested a total of £120,000 in the company, resulting in them, together with Ryan's mother, owning just under 20% of Propercorn, with the co-founders retaining the rest.
Propercorn's first customer was the cafe at Google's London office.
"Our philosophy is to leave no stone unturned," laughs Ryan. "I had a mutual friend who worked at Google and he put us in touch with the chef."
Out of the 48 snacks at the Google cafe Propercorn was the most popular, says Ryan.
"That was the first stat we had, and we went to Leon, Chop'd, Benugo and told them. It caught their attention."
The business partners were certainly hard to miss when they were running late for their first appointment with the buyers at London department store Selfridges.
As Cassandra had recently broken her leg she couldn't move very fast, so Ryan flung her over his shoulder.
"Ryan literally had me over his shoulder, my crutch in one hand and the presentation in the other. It was a complete farce. But I think even turning up in a complete state was part of the charm."
They won Selfridges over, and other accounts have swiftly followed, helping the brand now shift three million bags a month.
Their success has come in tandem with an explosion in popcorn's popularity, with UK sales increasing from £50m in 2010 to £129m in 2015, according to Mintel.
Propercorn is just one of a proliferation of of newer brands including Metcalfe's, Tyrrells and Poshcorn, to emerge in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Amy Price, senior food and drink analyst at research group Mintel, says: "These have been keen to tap into the health credentials of popcorn through signposting calorie content on the front of pack, but have also looked to flavour innovation and packaging design as ways to stand out and target a more upmarket consumer."
To try to distance itself from its rivals, Propercorn is pressing pause on entering new markets, and plans instead to focus on expanding existing sales.
To help achieve that, the duo are currently in talks with investors to source additional funds, although with Ryan admitting they're both "control freaks", they still plan to lead the business.
There's also a new product on the horizon for September. The founders are tight-lipped but say it will involve corn.
"We're not deviating [from what we are], we are a popcorn brand and the aspiration is to be the number one global popcorn brand," says Cassandra. "This product is just another extension of that mission."
With all money reinvested in the business - including renting new premises, advertising and hiring ex-Innocent commercial director Ben Greensmith last year - Ryan says they do expect to make a pre-tax profit this year, of over £1m.
"We do have a long-term vision for the business," says Ryan. "We're hell-bent on making Propercorn the number one global snack brand, and we're reinvesting in a big way [to achieve that]."