Talk to Jen Hope, and you start to feel like you’re in conversation with a Wes Anderson protagonist.
The Montgomery County native comes from a long line of storybook-like characters. There was her grandfather, the late Henry Hope, who fled Germany during Hitler’s rise to power and, after meeting his wife in England, immigrated to the U.S., where he became a farmer and barnyard inventor. According to family lore, he at one time held more patents than anyone else in the state of Pennsylvania—including one for the accordion wallet folio.
There is her father, Jack Hope (affectionately referred to by family as ‘Pirate’), who, among other business endeavors, had a St. Thomas-based submarine company, of which Mike Schmidt was an investor; he was regularly contracted by the U.S. Navy to recover ships or planes that had gone down off the coast of Nova Scotia and elsewhere.
There are Hope’s brothers, twin Jacob and older brother John, who grew up spending time in the family factory.
Hope’s friends, it turns out, sometimes even jokingly call her Jen Zissou, a nod to Anderson’s 2005 film,The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
All of which is a long way of saying that while pivoting from a stable, esteemed career as a civil rights attorney to launch a jigsaw puzzle company with your hard-won savings may seem like a quirky move for anyone else, for Jen Hope, it somehow feels…right.
“I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a risk-taker, but as with all things, risk is relative,” Hope says of her bold decision to start Puzzle So Hard. And at a time when our collective anxiety and insomnia may be soaring, Hope’s stunning and sensory-satisfying wares may be just the thing we all need right now.
Puzzle So Hard was officially born in late 2018, after more than a half-decade of research and rumination. Hope had not grown up puzzling and has no twee anecdotes about doing puzzles with doting grandparents or collecting them as a kid. But while struggling through a rough personal and professional patch, she was spending time at a friend’s house down the Shore, and casually started piecing one together.
The effect was uniquely calming.
“I saw this puzzle on the table, I walked by, and I put a piece in. And then I circled back again and did three more pieces, and three pieces turned into 10 which turned into three hours. It was such a type-A, extroverted-introvert activity for me,” Hope says.
She had been juggling so many stressors, she says, that “I needed a way to blunt the edges. And puzzles became that for me: a way to refocus attention away from the things that wanted it so badly, the bad stuff, and onto something that didn’t fight back. Colors. Patterns. It was really calming, and it continues to be.”
Studies have looked at the cognitive benefits of jigsaw puzzles, but it doesn’t take NIH-funded scientists to recognize their positive impact. Working on a puzzle is a kind of mindfulness exercise, a focused activity with a tangible—and in the case of Puzzle So Hard, beautiful—result.
“When I started doing puzzles, it was still bears drinking coffee and kittens playing with yarn, and cheesy landscapes of all sorts.” she says of her disdain for the old-school puzzle aesthetic. “It didn’t speak to my more punk-rock side, my artistic side. And I was looking for something that spoke to me. I wanted to create puzzles that were left of center, just a little outside the norm.”
For Puzzle So Hard, she decided to tap street artists from around the world, working with them to license their art for gorgeous 1,000-piece puzzles that are boxed in display-worthy containers.
“When I think about images for a puzzle, I consider things I love, and that will make a good puzzle because of different compositional elements,” she says. Gritty, for example, would not be a good puzzle. “All that…orange.”
Her line includes a thread-art image of a skull on a tennis racquet; a psychedelic, geometric howler monkey; Mt. Fuji, the coast of Bermuda, and Brazil’s skyline; and more. Her best-sellers are those of outer space.
Still, she’s eager to find a way to work with Philly street artists, and is a big fan of Conrad Benner’s Streets Dept blog, for example. “I want to be working with Philadelphia artists for sure—Philadelphia is my heart,” she says.
Since launching less than 18 months ago, Hope has shipped nearly 10,000 puzzles to customers around the world. The company is not profitable yet—Hope has resumed practicing law both to pay her bills and to fulfill the community calling her profession provides for her—but she says that if she can scale production, she’ll turn a profit for sure.
She’s currently considering different strategies to fuel Puzzle So Hard’s growth; additional funding would allow her to expand her artist repertoire, and introduce a line of kids’ puzzles (Puzzle So Awesome) and puzzle-related accessories.
The small business ecosystem in Philly, she says, can be biased toward the tech scene, but she’s’ grateful for the community of small businesses who support each other. She cites game café Thirsty Dice, for example, as a great source of local support.
“In Philly, it really is the small businesses that are supporting the small businesses,” she says. She also finds strength in the female entrepreneurship community, both through in-person meetups like Comcast’s Lift Labs’ Founders and Funders events, and online.
Hope also runs the grassroots Philadelphia Puzzle Exchange on Facebook, and has every intention of starting a puzzle library. This week, she did a curbside giveaway of over 40 puzzles from her personal stash (not Puzzle So Hard puzzles) through her Buy Nothing Facebook group, and people went wild.
She’ll also be personally delivering (“fully Clorox’d down”) puzzles to over 50 homes in her neighborhood, and has offered free puzzles to people who will be losing or lost their jobs. “People are looking for things to do, and puzzling is it,” she says.
“The tagline for Puzzle So Hard is ‘We Make Cool Puzzles. That’s how we connect,’” Hope says one morning, by phone, during peak COVID-19 quarantine. And while in-person connection may not be possible for the foreseeable future, there’s no doubt that we could all use some healthy distractions, some tangible outcomes, some way to connect pieces together when our world can feel as though it’s otherwise coming undone.
Hope has watched with shock and gratitude as people, perhaps now more than ever, gravitate to her business: “Over the last week, we have definitely seen a spike in sales.”