It’s early Tuesday morning and the Orange Sky Laundry van has just pulled up at Harrison Lane in Fortitude Valley. The sun is yet to rise and the breeze floating through the lane delivers only the slightest of chills, but for the people arriving it has been another long, cold night.
The streetlights flicker as a crowd starts to gather around the van, bags of laundry in hand, shivering in their last pair of clean clothes and beanies pulled over their eyebrows.
As the van turns on its first machine, conversations start flowing and a sense of community warms the street, welcoming more and more passers-by. Soon, the local food and coffee vans will arrive and as the sun starts to peek over the Valley skyline, the name “Orange Sky” suddenly makes perfect sense.
For Brisbane boys Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, this is just another day running their Australia-wide not-for-profit. Still only 22 years of age, they started giving back to the community as teens, helping out at food vans servicing homeless people in Brisbane.
“We both really enjoyed being able to go out and give back to the community. When we left school and started our jobs and study, we felt something was missing,” Lucas says.
Their experience volunteering had made them aware of the needs of Brisbane’s homeless community, hygiene being a major issue.
“We had a few ideas of what we could do, but we wanted to make it something different. That’s where the idea of the mobile laundry service was born,” Nic says.
“The expense of doing laundry was an obvious barrier for the homeless, but bringing the laundry into their community with other services was also a vital part of our project.”
So they started out as any entrepreneurs would, by building and pitching the concept. Lucas and Nic approached Richard Jay Laundry Services with the hope of getting support for the machines in the first van, which they had purchased themselves.
“We happened to come across the managing director of the company by chance, as she was based in Brisbane, so we went in there to pitch for support for our first machines,” Lucas says.
“Because we were young, had no experience in running a business and no technical knowledge, they weren’t sold on the idea. It had never been done before and they couldn’t see how the machines could work in the back of a van.
“We were pretty much told that the machines would never work and no one would use them.”
The boys went away and worked at the idea, returning to the Richard Jay – now a major sponsor – armed with confidence, a story and the hope they would come on board.
“Eventually we convinced them to donate the machines. Our visions aligned and they knew we were committed,” Nic says.
“When we came to pick up the machines, they put two washing machines and two dryers in the back, still in their cardboard boxes.
“That’s when we realised this was going to be a lot harder than originally expected.”
Between the two of them, Lucas and Nic managed to install the machines and had electricians and plumbers help out with the setup.
The original van fit-out, however, is a world away from the one on the streets today.
“It took about 12 months to get to the setup we have today,” Lucas says.
“The first day we went to take it out, we fired up the generator and blew the circuit board in the washing machines immediately. So we had to head back to Richard Jay, and luckily they were able to help.”
Other challenges the boys faced were having no precedent in the market, having to build the business model from scratch, getting people to believe in their ideas, and more technical problems with the machines in the vans.
“We don’t have time for down-time, so if something goes wrong, having the partnership with Richard Jay is really important because we can go back and get everything fixed to get back on the road,” Lucas says.
Orange Sky Laundry has since attracted a number of corporate sponsors, helping to fund what is soon to be 10 vans throughout Australia. Some of its other major sponsors include The Good Guys, LG and Jetstar.
The boys have developed a scalable business model, with a process for expanding into new markets. In less than two years they’ve established nine vans across Australia, run by over 600 volunteers, and washing almost 5.8 tonnes of laundry every week.
And while clean clothes are the tangible outcome, the authentic conversations are what truly makes a difference.
“It’s the community built through the support we are offering, and the six orange chairs we pull out at each location,” Nic says.