How we built our niche sneaker cleaning service by understanding what the youth market wants

Clean Grip founders on how they're commercialising their experiences and why township sneaker-freakers are their best customers


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Clean Grip Shoe Laundry, founders (L-R) Luyanda Mehlomakhulu and Lebogang Mohlala.

Lebogang Tsele

This article forms part of the Youth Month 2016 series in which SME South Africa, throughout the month of June, will shine the spotlight on youth issues and highlight the work of young entrepreneurs and innovators who are shaping SA's future.

The footwear market is a globally massive market.

A recent CNN report states that according to data by Euromonitor, Sub-saharan Africa's apparel and footwear market is reportedly worth $31 billion.

As big and lucrative as the footwear culture has become, there are few businesses offering professional cleaning services for your prized All Stars and Air Jordans or your favourite Superga and Arbiters.

Two young East Rand-based entrepreneurs are changing this. Taking a cue from township's fashion-conscious youth who routinely spend thousands of Rands on 'fresh kicks', the duo are bringing the "spa" treatment for your footwear.

Clean Grip Shoe Laundry, founded by Luyanda Mehlomakhulu and Lebogang Mohlala, is a shoe-cleaning business offering services such as washing, refurbishing, colour touch-up, stain removing, waterproofing, disinfecting and deodorising as well as customising shoes.

With their roots spanning across Soweto, Vosloorus, Dawn Park and Edenvale, the pair began their business looking to solve what they'd seen as a huge need by the shoe obsessed youth in their neighbourhoods.

While the township's youth were the inspiration behind their business, the startup has now expanded their market and is now based in Johannesburg's suburb of Bedfordview.

Mehlomakhulu and Mohlala speak to SME South Africa about the importance of getting the right product to the right market and why the township sneaker-freakers are their best customers.

Being young gifted and black
Being young and black influenced us identifying the problem and bringing up a solution a lot because where Clean Grip started is basically back in the township where you'd find the cleanest All Stars and Cavellas. We like buying the most expensive sneakers, so in buying them we need to upkeep them. Everybody wants their kicks to be clean and fresh. This presented an opportunity and we went with that. - Mehlomakhulu

Who our customers are
Our target market is basically the average middle-class with a focus on the township market, because most of the time they are the ones that spend quite a bit on footwear and expensive footwear. Our prices are R150 for a basic wash and R220 deep cleanse wash. - Mohlala

Convenience is the key to our success
Convenience is our biggest value for our customers. We come to your doorstep if you have three or more pairs and we deliver within 48 hours. Convenience is everything with us - you give us a call and tell us what is wrong with your shoes, we come and inspect the shoes and take it from there. - Mohlala

Commercialising the township experience
Starting a business now and being an entrepreneur is the next best thing from looking for a nine-to-five. As black kids, we didn't grow up with the culture of being a business owner. If you had a job that's when you made money. It's the culture we were brought up with, unlike other races. So now with entrepreneurship being put to the forefront were starting to see more black business owners. Their businesses reflect that black experience and that's a beautiful thing. - Mohlala

Youngsters from the township are now able to dream, they are able to reach out to people [internationally] through things like social media. This [has also] had an influence in terms of having young black people's experiences being commercialised and having their dreams out there. - Mehlomakhulu

Winning customers by being authentic
I think it's all going back to who we are and where we come from. A lot of the 'white' corporate companies have gone and taken our names and identities only to find that it's predominantly white-owned. It's being realised that black people are now empowering themselves and are becoming a hugely commercial market. So I'm all for black young entrepreneurs sticking to who we are. It doesn't matter how black it may be but what you do in your business, in the heart of it, carries out the whole thing, carries out that authenticity. - Mohlala

"You need to be humble enough to know that as much as you're the owner you can never stop learning"

It is important to be authentic. We need to keep our essence and being proud of who we are, our black culture. I'd think, for one, that the Tshisa Nyama brand would belong to a black person. And its not. And that Kota Joe would belong to a black person, and it's not. That's why it's important for us to believe in ourselves enough to take our black experiences and turn them into businesses - and be authentic with that as well. - Mehlomakhulu​

Learning from your customer
You need your customer. You learn so much from your customers, the suggestions they come with. That can automatically expand the business. You need to be humble enough to know that as much as you're the owner you can never stop learning. - Mohlala

With Clean Grip, what we believe is that we like giving the customer an experience where it's not just going to be about value for money. It's also about customer satisfaction where we build a relationship with the customer and they start trusting you. Once we are able to give the customer more than what they see as the value of their money, it becomes more than him being just a customer it starts becoming family. They don't come back just for the service, they come back for the relationship and the experience. - Mehlomakhulu

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