Nic and I have been friends for more than 10 years. Our high school ran a food van on the streets of Brisbane and we got involved in that. It was eye-opening and confronting as teenagers, knowing people were sleeping on park benches only a couple of kilometres away.
When we started Orange Sky, our intention was to increase the living standards of the homeless, but an [unforseen] byproduct has been talking with people. We’re not counsellors or social workers, but when we’re doing washing, we have a great opportunity to chat, hear stories and refer help. Since the launch, our passion for storytelling and challenging stereotypes has developed.
Nic and I have a strong relationship and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We like to think big-picture and how we can change the world. We’re really about solving problems and helping people — not necessarily the nitty-gritty detail, so we need to have people around us who know the finer details of running a business.
”Nic’s strength is research and development. I’m not allowed to use the tools and he’s not allowed to use the calculator.” Lucas Patchett
Nic’s strengths lie more with research and development; the technical side of things — he is the handyman. He’s been instrumental in building the vans and understanding how they work. I’m better with modelling, data capture and quantifying our impact. Nic uses the analogy that I’m not allowed to use tools and he’s not allowed to use the calculator.
Before Orange Sky, we didn’t have any experience with directorship roles so it has been important to balance knowledge and skills on the board to guide the organisation forward. It’s also been really important to know our weaknesses and not to be so naive — or so arrogant — as to think that our way is the best way.
We have a tremendous joy and pride in handing over elements of the business to those staff who have been able to take things to a new level.
2016 Young Australians of the Year
In January 2016, Orange Sky Laundry founders Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett were named joint winners of the Young Australian of the Year Award — recognised for their work in establishing a free mobile laundry service for the homeless.
We’ve surrounded ourselves with good people, including family and friends, and made strong networks. We’ve learned a lot of lessons around team-building and getting the right cultural fit. Recruitment has been a massive learning curve. About half our staff came through our volunteer network. Culturally, they’re already a perfect fit because they love what we’re about. We’ve learned to go back to the core principles of recruiting people on cultural fit, not necessarily skill set. We’ve had some challenges — hiring people who had great skills, but didn’t fit in or want to go in the direction we were moving in. We’ve had to make difficult decisions, such as not progressing people through probationary periods. It has sped up our learning in managing people.
We recently did the AICD’s one-day Governance for Directors Course. It helped us check our current structure and processes, and gauge where we could improve — for example: what to include in board reports, how best to run board meetings and how to get the best out of each director.
The biggest challenge has been the regulation around running a company, especially a not-for-profit. It can be a minefield to navigate and is still not something we’re excellent at. However, we now have people around us with the knowledge to keep us across it all.
We want better governance and better structure — to become a world-class organisation. We would like to take Orange Sky overseas in the next 12 months. That will require understanding how to set up in other countries, getting legal support and establishing new boards. This has sparked us to think about what we need to do in terms of our current governance to make that happen.
Orange Sky was meant to be a weekend project, but three years on, we’re a multimillion-dollar organisation. It’s a remarkable privilege to work with your best friend in delivering something you’re both passionate about — being on the journey together.
We’re ambitious people, creative problem-solvers, but we also couldn’t be more different. I’m not really the classroom guy, but Lucas is — I’m better on the tools. You probably wouldn’t want to be in the same building when Lucas is holding a tool, even though he’s an engineering student.
”We realised that just because we started Orange Sky, didn’t mean we were the right people to run it.” Nic Marchesi
For the first 12 months of the business, Lucas and I did everything. We built the vans, recruited and trained volunteers, raised capital and built our website. We managed partnerships, supplier agreements and social media. But we realised that just because we started Orange Sky, didn’t mean we were the right people to run it.
We’re both on the board, but we also report to CEO Jo Westh, who joined us in June 2016. Half of my time is spent in the vans — we design, build and maintain all of our vehicles in-house. Half of Lucas’ role is on the brand and communications. The other 50 per cent of our time is divided evenly between international expansion and business development.
At the start, we were a corporation with a board of seven looking after a team of 20 volunteers in Brisbane. The board was operationally focused and we leaned on it a lot for the basics. It’s become more strategic as Orange Sky has grown. Organisational growth has been one of our challenges; making sure we have the right directors and staff.
We had no staff in our first year then grew to 27 in our second year of operation. There was no staff turnover for a long period then we went through a strong growth phase and saw a group of people move on who had been with us for a while. We talked about the characteristics of the Orange Sky person, but we didn’t make it clear enough. Now it’s blatantly obvious, as is our vision (‘A world where the homeless, young and in crisis are connected positively with community’).
What we look for on our board is a balance. We want people to believe in what we do and have the utmost respect for the people we deliver our service to. Having people on the board who think the same as us, with the same ideas and energy, there’s no good governance to be gained from that. Bringing on directors from different organisational cultures has really helped.