Skinny Sbu Socks goes to the Grammys

‘I’m building a brand and a business that will speak to a global audience,’ says Sibusiso Ngwenya, founder of Skinny Sbu Socks.

FIFI PETERS: The upcoming Grammy Music Awards in the US are going to have quite the African feel to them, not only because South African-born comedian Trevor Noah will be the show host for the second time in a row, but also because South African-born entrepreneur Sibusiso Ngwenya, known as a Skinny Sbu, will also be featuring in the gift bags that will be given to all the show presenters as well as the performers.

Sbu joins the Market Update. Sbu, thanks so much for your time. First of all, congratulations. This is quite a big deal. You must be over the moon.

SIBUSISO NGWENYA: Ya-a-ay! Congratulations to myself. Fifi, if I can tell you, this has been a long way coming. I’ve been preparing all of my life for this moment, so I’m super-excited, man.

FIFI PETERS: That is incredible. I need to ask how you secured the bag, as it were, or got this opportunity.

SIBUSISO NGWENYA: From day one of Skinny Sbu Socks in April 2013, about nine years ago – I think I was 21 years old – I had set out to build a global brand or what I call a ‘glocal’ brand, which is a brand that has strong local roots but has an international overview and execution.

Even [in] the first year of Skinny Sbu Socks, how we got introduced to the public was through CNN, through an international platform. So I’ve always known that I’m building a brand and a business that will not only talk to people of African descent or people who come from where I come from, but I’m building a movement and a brand that will speak to a global audience.

So I think personally, as an entrepreneur and the engine in the business, I’ve had a very successful run locally. If you’ve been performing at the level I’ve been performing at for almost a decade, [it] almost gets to a point where it’s tiring and it’s starting to feel familiar and it’s not challenging.

So the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I think, was a nudge from God for me to take stock of my life – because I take my business as part of my overall life’s career – and really try then to find out what it is that I want to do over the next 10 years of my life, because I plan my life and my business and even my strategy 10 years [ahead] all the time.

I really wanted to hit the global market, but I was still trying to find the right way to start planting some seeds, as I’m still growing my business locally.

I figured that pop culture is the best way to introduce something that’s from Africa into the global market.

In the last quarter of last year we started a conversation with an agency called Distinctive Assets in Los Angeles, a marketing agency that’s been doing the Grammy Awards gift bag for the past 20-plus years. Two days before Christmas in 2021 the recording academy agreed to have Skinny Sbu Socks as part of the gift bag. I think that was the journey of Skinny Sbu Socks and the Grammys, and I was lucky enough to find partners like Standard Bank to help me finance this big opportunity.

FIFI PETERS: Mm. It’s kind of like you are at the intersection of where preparation meets opportunity, and I suppose from here the rest will be history. But ‘glocal’ – that’s quite a fresh term. Have you copywritten it, have you patented it? I don’t think I’ve heard it from anyone else but you.

SIBUSISO NGWENYA: Listen, you know what? I really see myself as a very generous entrepreneur when it comes to dishing out a blueprint. If you look at the South African phenomenon when it comes to local brands, almost 10 years ago I was one of the first young guys to venture into doing their own product at this scale and this way, and I’ve really been dishing out the blueprint of how to do it, whether it’s good or bad.

I’m one person who’s never been shy about my losses, but I’ve never been shy as well about my wins.

So I haven’t a copyright [on] the ‘glocal’ term, because I want it to be something that anybody right now who is thinking of starting any kind of business, whether you want to go into doing a bakery or you want to open a preschool or whatever it is, I want you to have a ‘glocal’ outlook on what you’re doing. You are not speaking only to people who come from where you come from, but you are speaking to a global audience, especially in this age of social media and the internet.

FIFI PETERS: It’s fantastic, I love it. So it’s a business rooted in Africa whose reach extends to the rest of the globe.

Getting back to the business of the day – and this is Skinny Sbu Socks really making a feature there at the Grammys – how many socks will you be supplying in the gift bag?

SIBUSISO NGWENYA: Ooh, we’re going to be supplying, I think it’s – how many, around two to five per person, and then they have close to 3 200 American media and nominees, and our hosts and things like that. So I’m not too detailed when it comes to the information there but, yeah, it’s quite a lot of socks that we’re going to be taking that side.

Also, an exercise like this as a small business is not only a marketing, a PR opportunity, but it’s a marketing opportunity for us to start planting some seeds on foreign territory.

So this is money that comes really from our marketing department to say we want to enter America in a big way. If you want to speak global, I think these are the kind of moves you want to make as a brand.

FIFI PETERS: I did a bit of maths in my head. I’m not the best, but if it’s two to five, at the highest end you’re potentially taking over around a thousand socks?

SIBUSISO NGWENYA: Somewhere around there.

FIFI PETERS: Are they ready?

SIBUSISO NGWENYA: Yeah, they’re ready. They are definitely ready. You know what happened? So right, now I think I’m one of the lucky few people who, you know, Maya Angelou always says: ‘I come as one, but I stand as 10 000.’ So when the deal got approved in December last year, two days before Christmas, I was working from a ‘dry well’ as a business. I always have stock.

So we had stock, but we didn’t have the money for the logistics, taking product outside, flying a crew from South Africa to Los Angeles, New York and Las Vegas, getting money for the registration.

That’s when I started approaching partners like Standard Bank who really care about the dreams of [their] customers and clients and employees. They really have come in handy in that element. Also I have the Small Enterprise Development Agency helping us to finance the entire deal, [and] the National Youth Development Agency [NYDA], which really assisted me to do this thing.

But already as a business we came in with the half end of the deal, and I think I have incredible partners who really want to see African entrepreneurship go to the next level.

FIFI PETERS: It sounds like you’re not getting paid to supply these socks in the gift bag.

SIBUSISO NGWENYA: No, we’re not getting paid. As I mentioned, this is a PR exercise. Skinny Sbu Socks from day one has always been – the core of our businesses is publicity. If you’re running a fashion house, you look at what Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, [and] Louis Vuitton have been doing for years.

Celebrities on the red carpet get asked, ‘Who are you wearing?’ ‘I’m wearing Louis Vuitton’. They didn’t pay for that Louis Vuitton dress. Louis Vuitton went to Angelina Jolie and said, listen, you have a name and a brand and traction, and people want to listen to you. ‘Wear this garment for free. We’ll give it to you for free; it’s worth X amount of money, and we are asking you to just mention us.’

The kind of value that you get from that is something that you can’t put a price tag to.

So we had to finance this; hence we had to partner with Standard Bank, with the Small Enterprise Development Agency, with the NYDA as well.

FIFI PETERS: Okay. You mentioned Covid-19, and you have been in business, as you say, for almost a decade. But what did the pandemic do to your business here in South Africa?

SIBUSISO NGWENYA: It forced us to pivot. I think we were very comfortable as Africa’s number one sock brand, as a local sock brand, to continue doing what we were doing. We have that element of the business solid, you know, but I think in the thick of Covid-19 we really had to find new ways to still speak to our audience in a bigger and better way. So during Covid-19 we expanded the business.

Covid-19 happened when Skinny Sbu Socks was, I think, seven years old.

So for the past seven years – at the time we were only selling socks, and we [have now] expanded our business to a women’s range and kiddies range.

When you visit our online platform, there’s women’s clothes and kids clothes and men’s clothes. So we’ve now grown it into an overall apparel business and for the first time in seven years we’ve now started opening and testing out our own physical stores, because we had been operating online.

But also our distribution model for the past seven years at the time was partnering with the biggest distributors in the country, the likes of Superbalist, Stuttafords, and now the Foschini Group, Markham Stores.

It forced us to really look within our business and say, what else can we really do instead of sitting down and complaining? What can we use this great opportunity for as a business to grow? I must say Covid-19 is the reason why we are now being launched as a business on a global scale.

FIFI PETERS: I’ll just add to that. I think it’s also yourself as a business mind, just recognising a situation and rising to the challenge of pivoting to ensure your business was able to not only keep its doors open, but come out bigger and better, it would seem.

Sbu, we’ll leave it there for now, sir. Thanks so much for your time. All the best in the US of A, and we look forward to your glocal expansion. That was a Sibusiso Ngwenya, founder of Skinny Sbu Socks.



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