Willow Larson, from Minnesota, combines artistic talent and business acumen.
FERTILE, Minnesota — Teenagers looking for jobs in Fertile, Minnesota have a few options.
Some work in the cafe. Others babysit or get jobs at the local nursing home.
But you’ll find Willow Larson’s mug in a business of her own.
“It’s Erskine,” the 14-year-old said as she pulled out a cup of coffee from a row of dozens. The mug displays the attributes of the western Minnesota town of 400 people.
“I have the coffee, which is great over there,” she says, pointing to the mug illustration. “And then the fishing is right on the edge of a lake.”
City names and attractions appear in a colorful font on each of the mugs. Thief River Falls, Mentor, Gary and East Grand Forks are among them.
Willow created them all and in doing so came across a successful niche business.
Search online for a Minneapolis coffee mug and you’ll find dozens of options. Still, “nobody really had anything for small towns,” Willow says. “So I decided to make them, and people loved them.”
Willow’s mugs are now on sale at three dozen stores in Minnesota and North Dakota.
In the past six months alone, she’s sold more than 1,000.
Mugs usually cost around $24.
Willow could have sold more, but can only design them so quickly. She has a waiting list of 15 cities to add to the 50 communities she has already featured on her mugs.
“I’m working on Bird Island right now,” Willow says as she sketches the town’s water tower using her iPad.
“They sell like crazy in all these little gift shops and boutiques and stuff like that,” says Caty Larson, Willow’s mother.
Caty and her husband Terry own a photography studio on the main street of Fertile in which Willow has carved out a workspace.
The couple recognized their daughter’s artistic talent from an early age – as well as her sense of entrepreneurship.
“She was probably 4 or 5, I had a yard sale, and instead of setting up a lemonade stand, Willow decided to set up an art stand,” Caty explains. “She had a little sign that said ‘Art Sale.’ I think she sold her drawings for a dollar each.
Caty started posting his daughter’s work on Facebookwhich led to offers to buy his work.
On a whim, then 12-year-old Willow designed a coffee mug for her hometown, leading stores in nearby towns to request their own mugs.
In front of the Larson photo studio, Jamie Paul runs Morning Glory, a cafe and florist.
Several of Willow’s community mugs are featured on display stands.
There is one striking omission.
“I’m currently out of stock of Fertile mugs,” Jamie says with a smile.
Unhappy with the delays of the company that printed her cups, Willow spent $2,000 of her savings to buy her own heat press. Rather than relying on a supplier, she now applies her designs to the mugs herself.
“I have to spend money, make money,” Willow concluded.
The teenager has also hired a financial adviser to help her with her investments.
“When she finishes high school, and if she chooses to go to college, she should easily be able to pay for much of it, if not all of it, on her own,” her mother says.
Willow also has her eye on a car.
“A sage-green convertible bug,” she says.
“She could buy one right now if she wanted to,” Caty adds.
Not that 14-year-old Willow can drive it.
Willow’s work also caught the eye of a publisher in North Dakota, who hired her to illustrate a business book. Her mother says the editor had to wait until Willow’s 14th birthday before she could legally do the job.
The new 9th grader also maintains an active school life, participating in a jazz band, cheer band, concert band, track and Nordic skiing.
When she can’t keep up with orders for her mugs, Willow hires a cousin, friends, and even her parents to help keep up with demand.
From his florist and cafe across the street, Jamie Paul has watched Willow’s business flourish.
“Remember her name, because she’s going somewhere,” Jamie said.
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