My Solo Story: Benjamin Spear
Name: Benjamin Spear
Occupation: Brand Developer
Education: BFA in Design, Boston University, ’02
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What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was obsessed with the future, and dreamt of building it. I read Asimov’s robot stories and watched TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and marveled at what our world could become—not just the gadgets, but the social progress. “How do we get there?” I asked my young self, and I’ve been searching for the answer ever since.
Give us a little background on your family. Is there a history of soloing?
My mother’s family were bakers, and she grew up working in her father’s bakery. My dad’s side is hardware; there’s been a Spear Hardware on Main Street in my hometown of Walpole, Mass., for generations, and my family carried on the tradition. So we’re a family of small business owners, essentially, with a strong and independent work ethic.
What was the impetus for launching your solo career?
Graduation. I went directly into soloing, with the help of a steady contract right out of school. It felt obvious to me, because I saw early on the emergent value of the network. On each project, you have people coming to the table from a broad array of expertise and project work. These unique perspectives—and the skills to integrate them—sold me instantly.
What is the path that brought you here?
My first contract directly after college was with a small Boston studio called Schwadesign. I worked alongside the founder, Josh Silverman, for several years and he was a trailblazer in collaborative workflows. His agency, like mine today, had a broad and diverse network of independent creatives.
As that contract ended and I went out on my own, I knew that cross-disciplinary collaboration produced superior client outcomes—especially for innovators—so I kept to that work style. So really, I’ve never had a full-time job, or been an employee anywhere. I’m a solo native.
What keeps you up at night?
Nothing. In the past few years I’ve begun mindfulness training and meditation, and I’ve become adept at silencing my (otherwise overly busy) mind and getting the sleep I need to rock every day.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I’ve been leading design courses at General Assembly for the past year, and it's taught me so much about teamwork and what it takes to inspire people. In the next five years I’d like to option that expertise for leaders and teams in the global health sector. With so much pain, suffering and injustice in the world, I think designers are uniquely positioned to help.
What advice would you give 22-year-old Benjamin?
In my young twenties, I had this idea that at some point, someone would come along and give me permission to do the things I wanted to do. I think formal education trains us to obey too much. Ultimately, you’re the only one who can make the call on what to work on, who to work with, and how to do it.
Where do you do your best work?
I do my best in team settings. I look forward to meetings, and I’m able to motivate teams to get a lot done during them. It’s in these moments of motivating people and inspiring them to action that I really feel like I’m moving the needle.
What’s for lunch?
Today I’m popping out to a local Jamaica Plain market, City Feed & Supply, for salad supplies. I usually just buy what’s in season and throw it in a bowl. Yum.
What do you do on your break time?
When I’m working from home (and it’s not winter) I’ll take five and work on my micro-farm. I’ll pull weeds for a few minutes, or tie up some tomato vines. It’s a nice shot of nature in an otherwise digital day.
Do you have a vacation strategy?
In February, I visited Mexico’s west coast, around Puerto Vallarta. It was ten days backpacking solo, visiting the city as well as a couple small villages on the coast. I’d never vacationed alone, but had the best time. I met dozens of amazing people (a couple with whom I’ll stay in touch), went to yoga every day, and generally just vegged out. I’m now scoping what my next solo adventure will be.
Who’s on your “team”?
I’m very lucky to have a large and brilliant community. I look to everyone in my network as an advisor, even folks my junior. It wouldn’t be innovation if it came from an expected place, and I count on everyone to challenge me and bring me new ideas (as I do them).
What’s the best job you ever had?
My best project is always my most recent one, because the work is in a constant state of evolution. Most recently I worked with a market research firm in Pittsburgh. They brought me on for brand development and a web overhaul.
I partnered with a brilliant designer for the logo, and introduced their 20-person team to more connected and innovative ways of working. I took on each employee as a mini-coaching client, helping them connect their personal goals to the organizational vision. This is key for digital brands: empowering every stakeholder to build and share content, both internally and externally.
What “business” aspect of launching your own solo career most excited you?
Business came after actually. In art school, “business” is a dirty word, and it took me a few years to unpack that baggage. Since then, I’ve become excited about every business aspect of my solo career, particularly the creation of new economic models. In 2011 I started a project called Brand Hack, where my partners and I completely reimagined branding for agile startups. I loved the feeling of creating not just a new business, but a whole new type of business.
What aspect of running a business have you never warmed up to?
Repeat work. Replicating the same process or deliverable for a specific sector can reduce one’s ability to create novel solutions. I bring insight from outside of my clients’ arenas, and I’m never sure where the next idea will come from. That’s why its important for me to always be switching gears, proffering new skills, and working between silos.
What’s the one thing about your life today that you most treasure that you wouldn’t have if you weren’t soloing?
Work/life integration. We hear a lot about work/life balance, which is only necessary if the two are mutually exclusive. What if your life and your work were the same thing? Each day, I do the things I want to see happen in the world. I move in the directions that pull me spiritually, and work with the people I love. I’m never under-challenged. This isn’t impossible as someone’s employee, but it’s tough to find and tough to maintain.