How Orange Sky is scaling its technology to reconnect communities across Australia


The challenges SMBs inevitably encounter as they outgrow their original technological infrastructure can become compounded if they’re experiencing rapid expansion and find themselves overseeing a national workforce. Social entrepreneurs Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, named the 2016 young Australians of the year, know this all too well.

Editor’s note: Just as Cisco Start is helping their charity, Orange Sky Australia, to better connect communities, so too can it empower your business to unlock its full potential. By entering the Cisco Start SMB challenge, SMBs with big ambitions have a chance to win a digital transformation package, courtesy of Cisco and KNet, ushering in the start of bigger things. To enter, tell Cisco in 50 words or less how a Cisco Start Networking and Security technology transformation can enable your big ambition. For more information, visit https://cisco-challenge.com.au/

In late 2014, the Queensland duo had the ‘crazy idea’ of hitting the streets in a second-hand van, equipped with a pair of washing machines and dryers. Marchesi told Dynamic Business that while he and Patchett set out to offer free laundry services to people experiencing homelessness, their broader objective was to positively connect communities.

Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett

“Growing up in Brisbane, Lucas and I had our eyes opened to a big problem, which is homelessness,” Marchesi explained. “Having assisted with food vans and at drop-in centres, we saw a lot of people who were disconnected from their community.

“After we completed school, Lucas and I began brainstorming simple but effective ways to assist people in our own backyard to stay in touch – and we eventually had our crazy idea for Orange Sky Australia. More than simply cleaning people’s clothes for free, we realised our charity would be about those moments where you sit down with someone for a really awesome conversation while their clothes are being washed and dried.”

Today, Orange Sky Australia is no longer just two guys and a van. It is a nationwide operation boasting 35 full-time employees, a fleet of 24 vans outfitted with laundry and shower facilities, and more than 1000 volunteers responsible for washing 6.8 tonnes of laundry, facilitating 200 hot showers and fostering 1200 hours of ‘really awesome’ conversations per week.

Gone is the original suburban garage office, superseded by a multi-storey space in Brisbane complete with a workshop, data room, storage facility and a printing lab. Critically, Orange Sky Australia is improving the lives of tens of thousands of Australians.

“The success of Orange Sky has surpassed our wildest expectations,” Marchesi said. “It’s taken resilience, curiosity, a problem-solving mindset and the cultivation of empathy. A mixture of all of those things and more is what makes Orange Sky what it is today. It’s grown beyond Lucas and I to become about our donors from around the world, our volunteers in Australia and our friends on the street who believe in what we do.”

A mission-critical evolution

As Orange Sky began to enjoy exponential growth, Marchesi and Patchett were faced with a raft of technological challenges. They realised they could no longer make do with a cheap, ‘home-made’ computer network; instead the scope of their operations now demanded enterprise-grade networking and data storage infrastructure.

Optimal communication and collaboration tools were also mission-critical because, Patchett explained, “the more efficient we are in our office, the more efficient our volunteers are out on the road and in the community.” The problem, however, was that neither co-founder could find collaboration and video conferencing tools they were happy with. On top of this, Orange Sky was struggling with slow internet which, Patchett admitted, was “hindering growth”.

“For example, all our vans need to be internet-enabled, so they can send back shift reports… containing information we need to manage the operation from head office and give our volunteers the structure they need to work efficiently,” he said. “If we have dodgy internet, we can’t do this properly.

“It’s not just about the business efficiency, either. People experiencing homelessness can feel disenfranchised and cut off. As such, our technology plays a critical role in remedying this. Many people who use our service have mobile devices but they usually don’t have SIM cards. If we can give them reliable WiFi in our vans, they can contact their families, access government websites and help services, and just generally stay in touch with the world.”

An offer too good to refuse

In March 2017, Cisco’s state manager for Queensland, Michael Reid, saw Marchesi and Patchett speak at a business seminar. Affected by the duo’s story and passionate about their cause, Reid arranged a meeting.

At the meeting, Patchett recalls being “very impressed” by the ease of use of Cisco Start, a suite of enterprise-grade technologies for SMBs In particular, he was “blown away” by Cisco’s video conferencing and remote-control dashboards, deeming them “perfect for office collaboration”.

Over a three-month period, Cisco implemented a tailored Cisco Start networking and communication solution for Orange Sky. This included all routing, switching and wireless at head office, a collaboration solution, IP video surveillance, an enterprise-grade firewall, and fast, reliable public WiFi at their vans.

An uptick in productivity

Now that Orange Sky’s fleet is outfitted with Cisco Meraki dashboards and access points, Patchett said it is easier for his core team to monitor their fleet of vans, manage their volunteers, and control all on-board devices and appliances, resulting in a significant uptick in productivity. Further, he said the implementation of video conferencing solution Cisco Spark Boards has enabled Orange Sky to “shift up to an entirely new gear”.

“We hold regular video calls with staff and volunteers around Australia, delivering training, chatting about how they’re going, and discussing any challenges they’re facing,” he said. “Keeping people informed is the most powerful thing you can do, particularly as a volunteer-heavy organisation. And thanks to Cisco Spark, we’re now doing it far better than before.”

The new technologies have also enabled additional innovation within Orange Sky, with Patchett explaining: “Our developers are constantly working on new things, like the new volunteer portal we just released. It’s a good feeling, knowing that our IT infrastructure can now keep up with our ambitious plans for growth.”

Marchesi added, “It’s been amazing to work with Cisco. In addition to building really good solutions, they have the team to integrate them. That was very important for Orange Sky because we’re a charity that doesn’t have the luxury of in-house IT consultants or advisors. Cisco determined what we needed and got it operational, enabling our employees and volunteers to focus on what they’re good at, undaunted by installation and other technology issues.”

A long-term partnership

Marchesi and Patchett are confident that Cisco will play an integral role in helping Orange Sky realise its big ambitions, including plans to hire people experiencing homelessness to provide laundry services to commercial organisations like cafes and hospitals. Patchett explained, “This will give us the funding we need to grow, while providing employment to people who currently use our services.”

Further ahead, the co-founders are looking to expand into New Zealand and the US – an undertaking for which they are receiving personal assistance from John Chambers, the former Chairman and CEO of Cisco. In addition to providing advice and guidance on Orange Sky’s expansion, Chambers has also connected Marchesi and Patchett with the Cisco Global team responsible for handling community initiatives around the world.

“Like Michael [Reid], John [Chambers] has been a great mentor to Lucas and I,” Marchesi said. “Importantly, they both get what we do at Orange Sky. We wash clothes, we facilitate showers, and we have really awesome conversations with everyday people – and Michael and John have played a pivotal role in enabling great conversations to happen.”

“The Cisco team haven’t just helped us innovate and scale, they’re helping us change the world. There are people from all across the world who are disconnected from their communities and we see ourselves, one day, empowering more volunteers to help them.”