Skinny Sbu Socks’ founder on debt and depression
Money troubles, the death of his gogo, a car crash and depression – after dealing with blow after blow, Skinny Sbu Socks’ Sibusiso Ngwenya is on the road to recovery
FOR a while he was at the top of his game. Everyone from celebs to stylish plebs wanted his brightly coloured socks, a popular clothing chain paid big bucks to stock his quirky creations and overseas manufacturers wanted in on the action too.
Sibusiso Ngwenya, better known as Skinny Sbu after the popular sock brand he founded, was flying high and living the good life. Then he dropped a bombshell.
“Honestly, I feel like giving up now,” he recently posted on social media. “I’ve used all I have, sold my car to save the business, use my personal cash I make from speaking & endorsements to grow this sock business. Things are not as fancy. I’m tired, drained [sic].”
The young businessman vanished without a trace following his tweet – prompting his friends to reach out for help via social media. “Hey everyone, please help us find @skinnysbu,” Sibusiso’s friend and fellow businessman Tshepo Mohlala posted.
The creator of Tshepo The Jean Maker jeans took to Twitter after Sibusiso’s aunt contacted him. “Just got a call from his aunt Lebo to inform me [he is missing],” Tsepho said. “I last saw him on Monday after dinner at Maboneng, he was wearing grey shorts & a white tee. Thought he was okay.”
Turns out the young businessman was anything but okay. We meet Sibusiso (27) at Dr SK Matseke Hospital in Diepkloof in Soweto, where he’s being treated as an outpatient. He sought help at the psychiatric unit after his friend, actress Shoki Mokgapa, took her own life after a long battle with depression and anxiety.
Casually clad in a grey tracksuit, his signature socks with flip-flops and sunglasses, Sibusiso opens up to DRUM about his breakdown. “I have some form of depression,” he says. “But in our communities you get criticised for saying you are weak and under pressure. They tell you to snap out of it. But how do you snap out of something?”
In an exclusive interview the sockbrand founder shares a sober tale of flying too close to the sun. H AVING started in 2013 with only R70, Sibusiso’s business grew so much he recalls having R2 million in his bank account two years ago. “Money was coming in uncontrollably. But I wasn’t educated about that level of money and power. It’s over-
whelming and I blew it.”
Sibusiso spent loads of cash keeping up with the flashy lifestyles he saw celebs and businesspeople flaunting on social media. “I had more access to money than before and I started misusing it. I started making uncalculated decisions and blew a lot on alcohol and going out.”
He didn’t negotiate prices well and one bad business decision saw his company bleed R800 000. Sibusiso took stock of his life and tried to rebuild his brand.
The businessman from Tsakane received a big boost when men’s fashion retailer Markham partnered with him to sell his socks in their stores. “I signed a five-month trial-run contract and they later extended it to a year because of the demand, but I was already deep in debt.”
He owes creditors at least R600 000 and the lucrative Markham partnership isn’t enough to keep his business afloat. Sibusiso says he’s been having cash flow problems since January last year, when his chief financial officer Sandile Molakeng told him the coffers had run dry.
Three months later he sold his 2017 Toyota Corolla to keep the business running. “But even that didn’t help,” Sibusiso says. “We didn’t have clients and we had to close down the office.”
The decision to close his Maboneng office, which employed seven people, devastated him. “I chose my team based on skill, talent but also on their personal stories. When I let them go it felt like I’d failed them, like I’m not enough as an entrepreneur.”
His early success and the Markham deal may not be enough to keep his doors open. “When I say to people I’m feeling pressure they ask how because you have a contract with Markham.”
His contract with Markham is only 25% of what is required to run his business, Sibusiso says. “I need more than I have right now.”
He needs at least R5 million to keep the doors open and things are so bleak
the businessman even considered selling his brand to an overseas manufacturer. “But when I thought about those 60 people who work at the factory in Cape Town that we outsource production to, I couldn’t do it. They are a reflection of my grandmother, who was also a factory worker.” H E’D ALWAYS been close to his gran, Mimi Molakeng (70). When business hit a slump Sibusiso moved back home with Mimi, who’d raised him in Tsakane. “My grandmother was my rock because my mom had me when she was very young. My gran was my mother and father.”
He was shattered when Mimi died unexpectedly last December. “She fell ill, doctors didn’t know what was wrong with her. She died within three months.
“I wanted to buy her a house in the north of Joburg but when I lost her my world crashed.”
He was still struggling to come to terms with her passing when another tragedy struck. Sibusiso and his friends were involved in car crash that nearly took his life a month after his gogo’s passing.
“I was injured in my head, neck and back. I remember trying to breathe and the pain would shoot straight to my back. My doctor gave strict orders not to move for three months. In just 30 days I lost my grandmother and almost my life.”
Sibusiso suffered another financial blow because his car wasn’t insured and was written off. The crash, coupled with his beloved gran’s death, triggered his downward spiral into depression.
He’s been trying to pick up the pieces since, but it’s not been easy. “I’m dealing with a lot. But social media doesn’t say that. They dictate how we should live our lives and no one is saying anything about the pressure men feel.”
Sibusiso says he’s tired of society’s expectations and has learnt the hard way he doesn’t have to succumb to the pressures of social media.
He also wants upcoming entrepreneurs to learn from his mistakes and he’s now trying to get his business back on track through mentorship with a more experienced businessman.
And thanks to a Good Samaritan who offered to help Sibusiso after seeing his distressing tweets, he’s receiving free treatment for his depression.
He has a long road to recovery, but Sibusiso is grateful for the support from his girlfriend, Mbuso Sibiya, and business partners like actor Tumisho Masha, who publicly backed him.
Sibusiso has faith he’ll find his feet again. “I’ve remembered the importance of living again. I’m more focused – I even have a rooftop garden where I plant lemons and tomatoes.”
And that, he hopes, will help him grow from the bottom up again.
‘When I let them go it felt like I’d failed them’
Sibusiso’s sock brand, Skinny Sbu Socks, is in financial trouble.
LEFT: Sibusiso’s girlfriend, Mbuso Sibiya, has been a pillar of strength. RIGHT: His sister, Smangele, and mom, Nonhlanhla, are supportive too. BELOW: His gran, Mimi Molakeng.
Actress Shoki Mokgapa, Sibusiso’s friend, struggled with depression and took her own life last month.
Despite a lucrative deal with Markham, Skinny Sbu Socks is battling to stay in business – but Sibusiso has a plan to get it back on track.