I first noticed Rachel Lee Young on Facebook, not initially because of her extraordinary photography skills and her distinct love for taking stunning images of landscapes and hummingbirds; I noticed Rachel because of her romance story.
I guess when I think back, it was not atypical. Here is how it goes. Woman is in an unhappy marriage. Woman divorces. Woman rediscovers herself and a healing romance. Woman falls in love with life again. What was unconventional though was how Rachel and her new partner, James Solomon (also an accomplished photographer) were not at all shy about sharing their blossoming relationship on Facebook.
There were sweet and fun images from the beach, missing you captions, personal stories and photographs of glasses of prosecco and meals sitting lonely on a table while one of the two travelled. The entire Internet was cheering on their story. Fast forward 4 years later and Rachel, who is former engineer, and James have found new ways to keep the flames lit, through a shared passion for photography that has led them to the production of an extensive and exquisite line of homeware and textiles featuring the world’s most coveted backyard bird.
When I saw Rachel’s – and James’- collection (under the brand Rapso Imaging) I was surprised at the extent and thoughtful depth of the brand. The line includes clothing, cards, tea towels, napkins, soft furnishings, and the massively popular cushion covers.
When I visited Rachel at the Diego Martin home and production space, which she shares with James, I wanted to know how does a photographer become a consummate brand queen and manufacture such an incredible body of work for retail. I also wanted to know what’s it’s like working so closely with someone you love. Turns out both take self-awareness and care.
Everyone has an ah-ha moment. What was that moment like for you when you decided to allow your camera to become your significant income earner?
Photography has always been a passion, which marries well with my love of nature and art appreciation. While my children were small, digital photography and the development of digital printing techniques opened up a whole new world of possibilities. When I divorced five years ago, it was a natural step for me to build on my amateur photography activities to create a necessary income stream. This experience helped me focus my energies and ramp up my creativity in an effort to make my activities more sustainable. I think my ah-ha moment came when I realized that hummingbirds were a real winner when it came to art, photography, homewares, and fashion. Once I realized this, it spurred me on to do more and more creative projects!
Was the decision to pursue your creative ideas frightening or liberating?
It was both actually just like my decision to divorce after 20 years of marriage (which I did at the same time) was. Learning to manage all the issues surrounding starting a new business, including very irregular cash flow is pretty scary. I was lucky that I had started another small business five years previously and had some experience with business planning, accounting, importing and so on.
Nothing beats taking small risks to help you get started. The hummingbird is a consistent theme in your design. Where did your love for photographing them begin?
I’m not a true birder but I’ve always loved watching them, listening to their calls. When I moved to the Caribbean from the UK 20 years ago, I became fascinated by hummingbirds. My first reasonable hummingbird image was taken in 2006 at Ajoupa Gardens and as my photography skills improved I became more excited about capturing the images of all the hummingbirds here. As I started creating surface designs it spurred me on to get great images of all the different species. With exports in mind, I am now on the track of more species across the Caribbean and into Central and South America.
Photography, a product line and now a brand. What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned about branding and product development that you can share with others to make their work less painful?
I would say be consistent, offer a quality product, offer excellent customer service. Go the extra mile. Please yourself and create products you like but keep an eye on what your customers desire and need! It can be hard leaving some things behind that have a special meaning to you but do not resonate with other people but sometimes you have to do it to stay in business and make a decent profit. It’s a balance, at times, a compromise.
You work closely with your partner James, how do you separate the two: your personal and professional lives so you don’t go completely bonkers?
I must confess it’s a big challenge for us, especially at times when the work is very intense – such as the run-up to Christmas. Personal issues get pushed to the bottom of our to-do lists and I believe at times our relationship suffers because of this. A saving grace is that we both love to get out with our cameras and can get a shared high out of a great day out on a road trip or immersed in nature. Sometimes we actually do manage to go to the beach without our cameras and relax for a bit.
You both have full control of your vision, of what your brand represents visually and contextually. You not only design the pieces but you both photograph everything as well. Would you say that doing all of it by yourselves has been easier or harder than having a team to outsource your projects?
Definitely easier! I’m lucky that James is really great at photographing the products; it saves a lot of time, effort and money to be able to keep this in house.
Your work and your efforts remind me that risktaking is not just for the young.
Perhaps our life experiences as older creative have shown us that trying new things is often scary but it’s possible to face the fear head on and just go for it, one step at a time. You also need to remember that we were young once and we are still the same people. Older, a bit wiser, more realistic and a lot more cynical but we were adventurers when we were young and we can still be adventurous now we are older.
What are some of your favourite ways to utilise social media platforms to increase sales, engage your followers, and foster a community? Do you plan content?
There is no real plan! Social media is hard work and there’s so much going on with us, we just post as we go along. We always generate new content with our photography, our activities, our products, we just have to remember to record what we are doing as we go along – people seem to like processes! We try not to post too much hard sell – but make sure there’s lots of different content including lifestyle stuff, pretty pictures and so on
What are the guidelines you follow to make sure you put your best digital foot forward?
Be true to yourselves and our brand, be genuine. Provide a good variety of content: pretty pictures, informative content, brand building, showing what we do, not too much hard sell though his is hard to control around Christmas
How many hours per week do you spend putting out content and shaping your brand on social media?
Too many! I usually spend about an hour each morning going through all the platforms, following up the reactions to the previous day’s posts, maybe posting new stuff, then I will check back a few times during the day to make sure we are responsive to comments, queries, messages etc. and adding new posts.
Let’s switch gears for a moment, you mentioned the export market?
Yes! I also have an elf on my shoulder whispering “Kate Spade”. I know if it is to be sustainable for me, to allow me to live comfortably and enjoy my passions – travel, spending time in nature, – I have to grow the business substantially. Reduce the costs of inputs; increase volumes while keeping the right quality. We intend to export to the wider Caribbean, the diaspora, USA, Europe.
What’s one piece of advice that you wish you could have told yourself when you first started developing this specific brand?
Remember to look after yourself!! Remember to make yourself a priority!