The Mr Ralph Story

May 25, 2022

The cottage in Cambridge where it all began


Mr Ralph founder, Rachel Williamson, takes us through the Mr Ralph journey which started in a tiny workman's cottage in Cambridge. 

My love of lighting has been lifelong. As a kid, my family would buy me fairy lights and lamps for my room, and I would lie there in the soft ambient glow, dreaming. In contrast, harsh light has always bothered me. My dad - being the tranquil character that he was - liked both the telly and lights amped up to full noise, so I would follow him around the house, turning them off or dimming frantically, which often got me into all sorts of trouble.

Then came the 90’s, and recessed lights were all the rage. Who wants dusty old pendants and old-fashioned wall lights when they can have stark light - and lots of it! It is the 90’s, after all.

Then, suddenly and miraculously, decorative lighting began to emerge in European Design Magazines. It was trendy again and better than ever.

The Idea

After years of different jobs which saw me pulling many a pint in Cheshire, fruit picking and pruning in Nelson (whilst seeing the glorious South Island on a motorbike), nursing, travel, and then working my way up the corporate ladder, it dawned on me that maybe it was time to try something that was mine - to take the plunge, feel the fear and put it out there. 

When I got my own home, it was natural for me to want a warm and cosy feeling. I had previously started a renovation on my Cambridge Cottage, and when I went shopping for lights, it was a shock to find that I couldn't afford anything amazing. I was left with products I didn't love because finances wouldn't allow me to have them! Grrrrrrrrr

I thought, why don't I start an online lighting business at home, with my double garage as the warehouse and dispatch area? Armed with a small amount of savings and a gorgeous husband who let me spend it all, I started to research.

The Name

My first website was a DIY Rocketspark e-commerce site. I spent three days populating it before I realised that I didn't have a LOGO or a business name that stuck (you won't believe the names we came up with before settling on Mr Ralph!)

I didn't want something synonymous with Lighting; others had done this, and it wasn't memorable enough to me anyway. My Jack Russell, Ralphie, was my one true love (don't tell Kev). He was a fantastic character who knew his own mind and preferred a pipe and slippers approach to life. In short, he was a DUDE! I loved the name Ralph (which is what we called Ralphie half the time), so it made sense to name the business after him.

In the true spirit of the Kiwi no8 wire, my mum and I designed the logo. We were desperately trying to come up with something, so we opened up free Word fonts on Google and chose Old Typewriter Style. We liked it, but it didn't stand out. Then Mum suggested putting a splodge at the end, as though the ink had left a blotch on the page. And voilà the logo was born. I have never tired of it, possibly because it's simple, but mainly because it will forever remind me of mum.

The Challenges

In those early days I bombed around the Waikato in my 1984 Mercedes Station wagon, loaded full of samples and did home visits. The business took off quickly, and I was fortunate to have the support early on of some local designers. Amanda Gow @ Blackwood Interiors and Turton Oliver were my first professional customers. They put up with viewing lighting products on my veranda at home or at the tiny storage locker I had acquired.

We opened our first showroom in a 25sqm kiosk in Cambridge. If there were more than four people inside the showroom, others had to stand outside and look through the windows. One day, I noticed that a much bigger Art Deco space across the road was available one. The shop owner next door to mine, Kath from Leven, had become a great friend, so we decided to share the space - Mr Ralph's decorative lighting nestled amongst Leven's incredible homeware and furniture. 


The business snowballed, but what should have been an exciting time was actually incredibly stressful. We didn't have adequate systems in place to cope with the demand, and so, fuelled by the stress and strains of starting up and growing so quickly, my health began to get progressively worse. Seven months after opening, I made the tough decision to consolidate the business and become online only. We managed to secure warehousing in Paeroa, and Kev and I moved to Waihi Beach to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle. My life then started to change, my health slowly improved, and I felt more in control.

The Gang

Paeroa

We opened up the Warehouse in Paeroa on weekends and couldn't believe the distances people travelled to see the product in person. It was unreal! We spent this time creating systems and recruiting a killer Warehouse team. Aura is Camp Mother, unbelievably productive and clever. Her team now consists of three extraordinary women who live in the Karangahake Gorge - Jena, Margriet and Kayla. They run our fulfilment like a well-oiled machine. There's lots of laughter, and they genuinely care for each other. It makes me happy every time I am there with them. 



New Plymouth

In 2019, one of my best friends in the world, J, was going through a life change. She had decided to return to New Plymouth after years of travelling, and I began to think about trialling a showroom in New Plymouth. While she was away in Italy, we found a space and signed a one-year lease. The rest is history. The showroom is secondary to the nationwide roles it provides by her very talented team.

First, we have Kasey, who runs our Social Media. Anna is an Interior Designer who helps customers with Online Design Consults. J bombs around Taranaki doing home consults and travels to other cities to meet developers and designers whilst managing the Studio. Sarah is our Nationwide Trade and Commercial Manager, and Jooj is the Studio queen. 



Gordonton

In the Waikato have been beyond lucky with the talent we have worked with over the years. Phil Paterson, an Electrician/Artist/Photographer who had been a friend for a few years, was innocently eating breakfast one morning when I called him to say, "I don't suppose you want to drop everything and come work with me?" He said yes without hesitation. He has made continuous improvements and is now our Creative Director and my go-to person for almost everything.



The success of opening our Warehouse in Paeroa on random Sundays made us think about how much nicer it would be to have a proper air-conditioned space, somewhere we could showcase the lighting. Unbelievably the moment we started looking, the perfect space popped up! Right next door to the Mandarin tree Art Gallery. The building needed a LOT of work, but we were up for it.

We opened in August 2020 and have not looked back. JoJo, a writer, and Summer, a customer service guru, came onboard, and it has been phenomenal. Jojo is now full-time working on our communications, and Summer is our Manager. Newcomers Liss, an interior Designer, also helps with Online consults, and Nic, a pocket rocket, helps in the Warehouse at busy times and is incredible with our customers. 



Gordonton has been kind to us. It is easily accessible from Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. There is heaps to do when you make a trip: Wairere Nursery, Mandarin Tree, Alpacas, Zealong, Arcanda Design, Candela Design, The Farm shop and much more. 

Gordonton aligned with our brand value of positioning ourselves in provincial New Zealand to maximise the talent pool and save on expensive city rents. It also illustrated that we had become a destination; people liked to come for a drive and check out the lighting.

The Product

Lastly, I have to mention our second hero after our customers – The Product. 

Product is my absolute passion, and I'm in my happy place when designing and sourcing. I'm lucky to be collaborating with Kat Lowry from Thornton Studio. Kat was with me from the beginning in Cambridge. She is an Interior Designer with a marketing degree and the most down to earth, practical human you will ever meet. When we moved to Paeroa and went online, Kat was my photographer, product designer and confidant. Kat left us to import gorgeous tiles from Morocco and Vietnam and see personal design clients. She came back as our one and only product designer in early 2021.

It's hard to believe it started in a tiny workman's cottage in Cambridge. I could not have imagined the success of Mr Ralph and I’m grateful to be doing what I love and to be surrounded by the best people.