How to start a boutique sneaker cleaning and shoe-care service.
We speak to Lethabo Mpho Mokoena a Daveyton based creative entrepreneur and the founder of WALK FRESH about his journey and his company which focuses sneaker cleaning and shoe-care service.
Q: Please introduce yourself, who you are, where you’re from, how old are you and what do you do?
A: My name is Lethabo Mpho Mokoena, born and bred in Daveyton. I’m a 25 year old entrepreneur and UJ BA Corporate Communication graduate. An avid believer in the township economy and the founder of WALK FRESH. I clean sneakers & polish shoes for a living, I can wash your stains away, save your sole and heel your spirit. I am passionate about youth and skills development in my township, and in creating opportunities for my peers.
Q: What is the name of your business, what do you do and how did you start, when was it established?
A: Founded in February 2015, WALK FRESH is a boutique; sneaker cleaning and shoe-care service, providing the best care and Maintenance for all brands, makes and materials. We provide the following services; Sneaker cleaning, Suede/Nubuck cleaning and refurbishing, Leather polishing & maintenance, Pick-up and delivery of footwear, Sales of accessories.
I started my business mainly to address the issue of unemployment and the lack of skills in my township.
Q: What inspired you to start this business, how did the idea come to you and how did you turn it from an idea to a business?
A: My lived experiences as a black university graduate in the township inspired me to start my own business. During my tertiary days, I was forced to find part-time jobs in order to pay for my tuition and cover my expenses, when my uncle could no longer afford to pay for my education. This taught me how to control and manage my time, and working a 9-5 job no longer made sense to me; which is when I considered the entrepreneurial route.
Coming back home after graduating, and finding some of my childhood friends at the same place I left them is one of the reasons I chose to take the entrepreneurial route; as this offered a way for me to effect some form of change/progression in my community.
In February 2015, on the day the idea of WALK FRESH was conceived. We were chilling at the shops and one of my friends was cleaning his mother’s sneakers as we were chilling. After realizing that I also had sneakers I would like to be cleaned I asked him why he was not getting paid for the work he was doing – he did not think it was a viable business to pursue. It was at that moment when I saw the business opportunity and the following day I spent money I had budgeted for transport to get to work and bought cleaning materials and then asked some of my friends to work with me.
In the first month of business we cleaned 46 pairs of footwear, this was in Feb 2015. Having identified the potential of the idea, I decided to put the project on hold in order for me to start focusing on the registration, research, and branding part of the business.
In June, four months later with the project still on hold, I went to the bank for a personal loan for capital and I officially launched the business on the same day of my graduation at UJ.
Q: Walk us through the first few months of your business, the challenges, highlights and moments when you felt like giving up.
A: The first few months of business were the worst of my life. Everything was hard and the pressure was crazy. Mind you, as a business, we were still trying to get our heads around the actual craft of cleaning footwear; since there is no formal information documented anywhere apart from YouTube videos. Most of the stuff we did was purely trial and error, but this also meant some of our clients footwear were ruined in the process.
Regardless of how cash-strapped I was; I still had to reimburse the client with a new pair regardless of how expensive it was. This was really stressful, and at that time I was still working full-time as a Sony Mobile Brand Activator, which allowed me to inject more money into the business monthly and to pay salaries since the business was not making any money.
On the first of September 2015 after paying salaries and company expenses which left me flat broke before I could even pay for any of my personal expenses – one of my team member’s and best friend sent me a text saying he was leaving WALK FRESH to start his own sneaker cleaning company. I was so stressed out that I had to pull over on the highway to cry because I felt like the pressure was unbearable .
Days later in the same month, we got a call from KIWI and they were interested in our project, however, they would only be able to work with us after five months. This was when I decided to approach PLUSH, and they were willing to give us free product in exchange for brand/product reports. The supply of product from PLUSH was one of the highlights because it released me from a lot of pressure.
Q: Has your entrepreneurship journey been what you expected it to be? If yes how? If No, how is it different from what you expected?
A: Being a first time entrepreneur, I honestly had no expectations. I jumped in and decided I would deal with everything as it comes. I did however expect hardships, but I think I was not mentally prepared for the hardship. By the time they happened I was forced to adapt and adjust ASAP in order to keep the business going.
Q: Has owning a business changed you personally? If so how?
A: Owning a business has changed a lot about me. It has changed how I see the world, my thinking as well as my reasoning. Owning and running a business has taught me to respect time and to see opportunity in every crisis instead of worrying about the actual crisis. More than anything, owning a business has made me a doer more than I am a thinker; it has forced me to become more decisive about everything I do in my life.
Because just like in life, there really isn’t enough time to overthink things. The sooner you act, the sooner the problem goes away. The slower you react, the more money/clients you lose. Personally, owning a business has taught me to appreciate and value people more than anything. As you keep going, as you keep building your business, you come to realise the importance of people in what you do. Whether they’re team members, clients, or even friends, and family – owning a business has changed how I treat my relationships with human beings.
Q: What do you think is the reason that Walk Fresh works? What has kept the business running?
A: Firstly, I think it works because of the level of convenience and the integrated services we provide our clients. Imagine getting your favorite footwear cleaned, repaired, refurbished and delivered back to you just in time for your first date with Mr right. But more importantly, I think WALK FRESH works and is still running today because of our ‘WHY’. The ‘WHY’ behind WALK FRESH, ‘WHY’` we wake up every morning to pursue this township dream. A lot of people can get their helpers to clean their footwear or take the DIY route, but most people support us because of ‘WHY’ we are doing this. Someone would see our work or read our story somewhere on the internet and feel compelled to track us down and bring their footwear to be cleaned by us. Honestly, I think the authenticity of our story is what keeps the business running because even when the days get dark and payroll seems impossible to meet, I still wake up to pursue relentlessly because I always remind myself of ‘WHY’ I started.
Q: What should we expect from your business in the next six months?
A: In the next six months you should expect my business to triple its revenue, working on the flagship store/workshop in partnership with The J&B Hive in our homebase of Daveyton, to become a skills development academy for young people that want to be professional cobblers, and to have a bigger brand presence in Gauteng.
Q: The J&B Hive is investing in your business, tell us how you feel about this investment and how it is going to impact your business?
A: The J&B Hive investment is the biggest thing to ever happen to WALK FRESH to date. I am super excited and keen about it and I look forward to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. This is going to have a huge impact in my business because it will allow me to grow my business extensively, it will help me employ more people and grow my team, and it will also allow me to pursue my long-term business objectives.