Kerry O'Neil | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kerry O'Neil


Founded in 1984 by Kerry O'Neil, Al Hagaman, Jr. and Cheryl Harris, O'Neil Hagaman is one of Nashville's best-known consulting and music business management firms. Although the firm doesn't advertise its clients, big-name artists like Garth Brooks and Little Big Town have thanked them publicly for their advice. 

The Mistake:

I try not to use the word "mistake" much. It has a lot of connotations that it's some sort of an abrupt bump in the road with terrible consequences.

When I went to college at 18, I really wasn't interested in college. I was interested in writing and performing and traveling, but I went to college like all my brothers did. I ended up flunking out my second semester of sophomore year, and at that point I wasn't even going to class. If I had gone to class I probably would have still gotten through. I told my dad I was "withdrawing with failing grades" and not flunking out. He wasn't impressed.

After a few years back in D.C. doing high-rise carpentry work I took some aptitude tests, and I was encouraged that maybe I should be doing something where a college degree would be helpful.

When I went back to college, I went back to get myself a trade and some means to allow me to continue to build my songwriting career. I ended up getting a bachelors and a masters and a CPA. At that point, I could get a job anywhere in the world, but Nashville was where I had a little response from songs.

I came to Nashville and got a job here with a company called KraftCPAs. The deal was that if I could find music clients, I could bring them in and work on them. I ended up doing that and built what is known as O'Neil Hagaman today.

I always tell people to find something that they really like and not to worry about the money.

The Lesson:

I learned that you have to do what you're passionate about first, and then do business second. If you're passionate about something, it's so much easier to keep pushing through and figuring it out. If you're not really interested, you're going to give up too soon. I always tell people to find something that they really like and not to worry about the money. Then you'll make money, and most importantly you'll be excited about your life.

It takes me longer to get me where I'm going on a lot of things. I’m watching lots of things and learning. I'm not in a hurry to get to the next spot. Maybe if I would have graduated the first time around, I would have gotten another three years in the workforce or have had access to a few more artists, but you never know.

I've stayed self-employed through my career. I have been offered several jobs with some major corporations and didn't take them, primarily because it wasn't something that was driving me. Those were moments where I look back and think that if I had taken them, I would seemingly have more stability and a bigger paycheck – but I'm not coming into an environment that's highly political or set up as a vertical organization.

Pictured: Kerry O'Neil | Photo courtesy of Shorefire Media

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