It was a lucky opportunity that made Lerato Mohlala realise this is what she wanted to with her life but it's self-belief, patience and perseverance that makes her startup business successful.

After working in the freight industry for two years, Lerato decided to start her own business. Today she runs Letha Lethu International Freight, specialising in special cargo, local and global logistics freight forwarding, courier services, special cargo, customs clearing and administering imports and exports.

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The mother of two says once her company sees more growth she would like hire more staff and to compete with large companies like DHL. She talks to us about how her journey started:

How did you get involved in the freight and cargo industry?

I was working for a retail store and my boss walked into the store and wanted us to fetch something and I assisted him. I did a more DIY solution basically and but he said ‘I never thought of that, I could use someone like you in my company’.

Now I didn’t know what company that was but I agreed, we exchanged numbers and then on my off days, I was working as a casual, I would go to cargo and assisted him with admin. That’s how I got to know how to get in and what [to do]. That’s how was introduced to it.

I registered my business from the second year while I was still employed, I just wanted to see how it was going to work out.

Already I was intrigued, this was a new thing for me and I love trying out new stuff. I left that job and I started working for this company… in freight and logistics. It was a year, I think it was enough for me… If I feel like I have all the information, all the information that I need at that place then I move because I don’t like staying [for too long] at one place, its going to be a bore. 

So whatever I need to to take from that situation I take it out and then and I move on to the next. So I worked for two more freight companies after I left. I can say worked for two years in freight before I focused on my business full time.

How did you transition from being employed to starting your own business?

I registered my business from the second year while I was still employed, I just wanted to see how it was going to work out. It was easy really because I wasn’t going out looking for a lot of clients. I would knock off and find a walk-in I would meet outside that cargo and I would say “I have a company as well we can assist you with that,” so it would be one client in a month that I would be assisting. Then I thought “this is doable”.

And then from those clients I got referrals then I started getting bigger and started clashing with my work and I had to decide then what is it that I actually want, either I stop that and focus on the employment side or I leave the employment and focus on the business side.

You know when you are used to getting a salary and then all of the sudden you don’t, it was hard.

I told the people at work and I focused on the business side.

I was lucky enough to actually find clients that are new at importing and exporting, they were importing for the first time, they do not know what to do so I created my own client base without stepping on anyone’s toes. They thought that ‘she’s stealing our clients’… I didn’t care, it’s business after all.

How did you finance the business?

Because I started while I was still working, [funding] wasn’t a problem. Now you have to buy laptops, printers and all that so purchasing all that wasn’t an issue because I knew I had my salary and with whatever I was making with the business on the side I use to buy things that I needed so it didn’t become a struggle that much and I just went on and on, the branding and everything – it was easy for me to do.

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Once I left work it started going south, I had frustrations. You know when you are used to getting a salary and then all of the sudden you don’t, it was hard. I had to make sure that the bills had to be paid, the kids needed to be at school, there needs to be food… things needed to be taken care of and that’s when I realised this is not as easy as I thought it was.

It started off easy but now it’s hard. I would go a month or two without having any clients and it becomes very quiet because [there’s] that phase where it’s just too slow and I would have those moments and it would be hell.

It’s hard looking at your bank balance and know you cannot use it because you need to think ahead - if one, two, three happens in the next month at least you know that you have enough funds.

It’s one of the things you learn because when you’ve got clients you have the mentality that “I have clients, I’m working now I’m going to have them anyway” but it doesn’t work like that.  

When I learned from that I started saving, so now with every client I get I plan for two, three months ahead. So it’s not all fun and games, you cannot enjoy the money the way you would want to. It’s hard looking at your bank balance and know you cannot use it because you need to think ahead - if one, two, three happens in the next month at least you know that you have enough funds.

What skills do you need to run the business and how did you pick up any additional skills?

Everything I’m doing is just self-taught. When I was working I saw what they did, I was basically doing it while working, that’s how I learned and I [just took] that knowledge and now I’m using it here. I do the invoicing and then I decide what to do with the profit that I make -like put that aside for stationary, for license etc.

I actually joined groups and I was at quora as well where I’d be associating myself with friends that are a lot like myself, you learn a lot - people share a lot when it comes to that.

Also, the SARS websites, you just Google search for whatever you want to know and you download the document on there and you read. That’s what I used to do at work when we didn’t have a lot of work [to do], so I would download and read for myself.

I continued doing that, with other things as well, that’s how I learned. Also, associating yourself with the people that motivate you, especially the ones who are working in those freight and logistics companies, they know more.

You need to be a person who knows how to stand their ground, be confident and be a risk taker – do not think twice.

What would you say sets you apart from other companies?

It’s very open to be honest, anyone can do it – but it’s not what you do it’s how you do it. You need to find your way to do things so that you can be able to succeed because everyone can do it. I found my own way of doing things that is why [I am successful] – it makes it easier if you find you niche, you work on it, grow it and make sure you attracted those people.

When I wanted to do everything at the same time I saw that I got lost it and you feel like it is too hard or it’s too complicated and that’s how you end up stepping on other people’s toes.

What kind of characteristics would you say are key for success?

You need to be a very patient person first of all, you need to be resilient too because it’s hard. You will be treated like you know nothing, you’ll have clients who’ve been importing for years who understand the industry and because you’re [new] they would want to use you and try to get their way.

You need to be a person who knows how to stand their ground, be confident and be a risk taker – do not think twice. How I survived, I believe, is by trusting my instincts, so if it doesn’t feel right then it’s not right.

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To be honest, when you are a woman they just want you to be behind the computer and do the capturing and all that – they don’t mind that. But as soon as you say “No, I’m running this,” it becomes a problem. They don’t trust you.

How can you manage…? Are you sure you can manage? Don’t you work with someone else? It becomes that thing of, you’re not trusted as a woman to take care of them… It is doable but they make it seem like it’s not but anyone can do it.

Where do you draw support from in difficult times?

When I am frustrated and I’m going through a stressful time, [my children] see it all. Sometimes [my daughter] asks “do you want something to eat, can I make you tea?” that’s when she can tell that I’m frustrated.

They worry and when I see the worry on their faces, that’s where I draw my strength from – but I also have support from my aunt and my friend.

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