16 Nov 2017 | 12.01 pm
Guest Blog: Cassandra Stavrou, Propercorn
‘There is no blueprint for an entrepreneur’
16 Nov 2017 | 12.01 pm
This week, we celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week. Across the globe, in 160 different countries, there are 35,000 events taking place; inspiring, connecting and mentoring ambitious people.
In Ireland, less than half of people believe they have the skills and knowledge to start a business. As someone who’s taken their company from kitchen table startup to supermarket staple, I’d encourage everyone to explore their potential as a self-starter. Not just academics, or the gregarious, and certainly not just the bolshie amongst us. Despite endless assertions on the specific character traits required to be the next Elon Musk, there is no blueprint for an entrepreneur.
I first came up with the idea for PROPERCORN when I was 25. It was 2009 and access to the reams of advice we now have at our fingertips, was thankfully more limited. In the age of information overload, the real skill is having the ability to sift through the noise and creatively and intelligently interpret advice that comes your way.
Throughout my career, I’ve been told I need to possess endless qualities if I’m to make it in the world of business. The trope that occurs most repeatedly is that of boldness, bravery and toughness.
By definition, entrepreneurs will need to be brave risk-takers of sorts: I certainly took one when I quit my job in advertising to pursue a career in popcorn. But you can’t reduce success to the possession of certain personality traits. “Boldness” won’t be the prerequisite for your making it and certainly isn’t the blueprint of every business owner I’ve met.
Over the past eight years, I’ve come to realise that it’s not traditional notions of toughness or bravery that would decide my fate in business. I’ve helped grow a company in a fiercely competitive industry and resilience continues to be the most important tool in my armoury.
I started PROPERCORN in my mum’s house, mixing popcorn in a converted cement mixer. I was full of unfettered excitement and self-assurance. It was only when I bulldozed my way into the brawny world of manufacturing that the harsh reality kicked in. I was a young girl, with no proven track record, so was continually patronised and put down. One factory owner even told me to go and ask for my job back.
Travelling up and down Britain’s industrial estates knocked the confidence and courage out of me. But true resilience is about more than developing a thick skin. It’s about being strategic and intelligent in the way you overcome challenges.
A matter of days before we were due to launch Propercorn in 2011, two competitors entered the market. To me, they were the epitome of bold and bolshy– big names, national distribution, years of experience and money. I genuinely believed the dream was over and that I lacked the strength to challenge them. Two years of work and my life savings gone.
Yet there was a way to stand up and fight which didn’t require brawn and toughness – all it needed was a bit of brain. I was never going to have the deepest pockets but I could be resourceful, creative and empathetic. Those things I had in spades and would have to make for my lack of logistical muscle, industry experience and financial clout.
Play To Your Strengths
To be a successful entrepreneur, you need to play to your strengths, not someone else’s. When we started out, supermarket stock rooms were traditionally piled high with non-descript brown cardboard boxes. Staff had the impossible job of navigating a sea of identical towers when attempting to restock shelves. More established brands would hire an army of people to travel the country checking on compliancy but without this resource, we were destined to drown in the deluge.
So, we decided to design colourful boxes modelled on luggage. They made our brand instantly recognisable to supermarket staff and our product began to make it to the right shelf. Creativity had started to help us overcome big commercial challenges.
Six years on and we sell some 3 million packets of popcorn a month in ten countries around Europe. We didn’t get here by shouting the loudest or by adhering to a mythical recipe for business success. PROPERCORN is where it is today thanks to an incredibly ambitious young team who live and breathe my belief that individual talents- not experience or gender or personality traits- are the real arbiter of success.
I can’t be sure what ‘skills’ it is that aspiring Irish business owners think they lack. But there’s certainly an inherent fear in entrepreneurs that we might not fit a particular mould or live up to ruthless stereotypes espoused by the likes of Alan Sugar.
This Global Entrepreneurship Week we have an obligation to stop telling people to be all the things they aren’t. Instead I hope we recognise the plethora of inspirational entrepreneurial talent that we can look to for inspiration around the world; as diverse in their personalities and skillsets as they are in their business ideas.
• Cassandra Stavrou co-founded PROPERCORN in 2009. The company now sells 3 million packs of popcorn a month in countries across Europe, including Ireland, where annual volume is 1 million packs. Operating company Catapult Enterprises Ltd booked a loss of £1.7m in 2016 as trade debtors increased by 45%.