Araya Jensen, owner of Willful in south Minneapolis, had no designs on becoming a retail entrepreneur when she was laid off in 2010 as a designer of kitchens and bathrooms for a not-enough-work remodeling company.

Jensen also was seven months pregnant with her second child. The family made do on her husband’s income and Jensen’s unemployment insurance as she searched fruitlessly for work in a housing industry that had yet to recover from the collapse.

Eventually, she decided to strike out on her own.

Jensen took a community-education class in website design. And she started an online store at her kitchen table called Wind and Willow Home, selling home-and-gift products made by artisans. She also her own wooden and rubber spoons. Jensen financed her first inventory with a bank loan against her several-year-old car. She drummed up business selling gift baskets to former co-workers who would give them to remodeling customers.

Two years ago, she changed the name of the company to Willful (willfulgoods.com) and, with online business growing, moved into a shop west of 48th Street and Nicollet Avenue. She financed the expansion with a $40,000 U.S. Small Business Administration-secured loan following business training at WomenVenture, the venerable coaching-and-financing nonprofit.

The business is cash flowing, and Jensen is current on the loan.

“Things are working, and November will be my best month ever,” Jensen said. “It’s exciting. I’m adding new products, including from Guatemalan indigenous artisans who weave and make rugs, pillows and hand towels.”

Jensen believes she can grow the business from about $200,000 in sales this year to nearly $250,000 in 2017. She has two part-time employees and pays herself minimum wage when the checkbook permits. She is encouraged by sales of her own Willful line of wooden spoons, salad bowls, cutting board and other products that range from $10 to $250.

“I only run payroll for myself when the books say I can,” said Jensen, who hails from northeastern Minnesota. “I’m still bootstrapping it. I was really forced into this, and I’m just doing the best I can doing what I know. I’m taking the 30-week ‘scale-up’ program sponsored by SBA and WomenVenture to try and take the business to the next level. I’m learning everything I can.

“I would love for Willful to become a well-known brand, a full selection of goods for the home,” she said. “Whether I’m making them or from artisans around the world.”

Willful is the antithesis of the big-box retailer dependent on all kinds of Black Friday-Cyber Monday-hype-everything sales. She did well Thanksgiving weekend without hyping much of anything. She has a nice book of new-and-repeat online and in-store fans.

“While I like a good deal, I hate the hype,” Jensen said. “I am more of an intentional shopper, seeking out the products that I really need and expecting that I am paying a fair price for the quality and craftsmanship.”

And she has noticed her customers tend to be interested in the neighborhood and the world.

Last weekend, arguably the craziest shopping weekend of the year, Jensen didn’t discount anything in what proved a banner three days from Friday through Monday. Jensen told her customers that she would donate 10 percent of profits to Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee.

“In this season of thanks and gratitude, we want to put our focus on those who are doing great things for people in need and the American Refugee Committee has impacted people all over the globe not to mention their fantastic work with Somalian refugees right here in Minnesota,” Jensen said.

 

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.