FERTILE, Minn. — Teenagers looking for work in Fertile, Minnesota, have a few options.
Some work at the coffee shop. Others babysit or get jobs at the local nursing home.
But you’ll find Willow Larson’s mug at a business all her own.
“This is Erskine,” the 14-year-old says as she pulls a coffee cup from a row of dozens. The mug displays the attributes of the western Minnesota town of 400 people.
“I have the café, which is big there,” she says, pointing to the cup’s artwork. “And then fishing, it's right on a lake.”
Town names and attractions pop in colorful font from each of the cups. Thief River Falls, Mentor, Gary, and East Grand Forks are among them.
Willow created them all, and in doing so, stumbled on a successful niche business.
Search online for a Minneapolis coffee cup and you'll find dozens of options. Yet, “Nobody really had anything for small towns,” Willow says. “So, I decided to do these, and people loved them.”
Really loved them.
Willow’s cups are now for sale in three dozen shops in Minnesota and North Dakota.
The past six months alone, she's sold more than 1,000 of them.
The cups typically retail for about $24.
Willow could have sold more, but can only design them so fast. She has a waiting list of 15 towns to add to the 50 communities she’s already featured on her cups.
“I'm working on Bird Island right now,” Willow says as she draws the town’s water tower using her iPad.
“They're selling like crazy in all these little gift shops and boutiques and stuff like that,” Caty Larson, Willow’s mother, says.
Caty and her husband Terry own a photography studio on Fertile’s main street in which Willow has carved out a workspace.
The couple recognized their daughter’s artistic talent at an early age – and also her entrepreneurial sense.
“She was probably 4 or 5, I had a garage sale, and instead of setting up a lemonade stand, Willow decided to set up an art stand,” Caty says. “She had a little sign that said, ‘Art Sale.’ I think she was selling her drawings for a dollar each.”
Caty started posting her daughter’s artwork on Facebook, which led to offers to purchase her work.
On a whim, then-12-year-old Willow designed a coffee mug for her hometown, which lead to shops in neighboring towns requesting their own cups.
Across the street from the Larsons' photo studio, Jamie Paul runs Morning Glory, a coffee and flower shop.
Several of Willow’s community cups are featured on display shelves.
There’s one striking omission.
“I'm actually sold out of Fertile mugs right now,” Jamie says with a smile.
Unhappy with delays from the company that printed her cups, Willow spent $2,000 of her savings to purchase her own heat press. Rather than relying on a supplier, she now applies her artwork to the cups herself.
“I have to spend money, to make money,” Willow concluded.
The teen has also acquired a financial advisor to help her with her investments.
“When she's done with high school, and if she chooses to go to college, she should easily be able to pay for a good part of it herself, if not all of it,” 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 Willow, at 14, could drive it.
Willow’s artwork also caught the eye of a North Dakota publisher, which hired her to do the illustrations for a business book. Her mother says the publisher had to wait until Willow’s 14th birthday, before she could legally do the work.
The incoming 9th-grader maintains an active school life too, participating in jazz band, pep band, concert band, track, and Nordic skiing.
When she can’t keep up with orders for her cups, Willow hires a cousin, friends and even her parents to help meet the demand.
From her flower and coffee shop across the street, Jamie Paul has been watching Willow’s business blossom.
“Remember her name, because she's going somewhere,” Jamie says.
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