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The spark that ignited Minnesota team leader’s sizzling career

Team leader Ryan O’Neill discusses his career in music, and the lessons he has learned growing and leading his team with RealTrends

Real estate was supposed to be just a side-gig for the founder and leader of the RE/MAX Advantage Plus team, called The Minnesota Real Estate Team, Ryan O’Neill. O’Neill and his brother, Tim, are the two brothers that make up the widely streamed piano and instrumental music duo, The O’Neill Brothers.

“My brother Tim and I are lifelong musicians,” O’Neill said. “We have sold our music through a variety of outlets, and we’ve been doing that pretty actively since college. But after a number of years doing that, I decided I wanted to be less involved in running the business side of things.”

Some of the highlights from Ryan’s career as one half of The O’Neill Brothers include selling more than 10 million copies of their songs, touring with ‘80s pop sensation Debbie Gibson and providing music for movies, NBC, CBS, HBO, PBS, and others.

After taking a step back from the music business, O’Neill decided to get his real estate license.

“I wanted to purchase some investment properties and was looking to represent myself in the transactions. As I got into it, I realized that I really enjoyed it, and I started working with other investors,” he said.

That first spark of enjoyment ultimately led to O’Neill founding and leading the No. 18 mega team by transaction sides and No. 27 by sales volume in the country according to 2022 RealTrends + Tom Ferry The Thousand rankings. In 2021, O’Neill’s Bloomington, Minnesota-based team of 109, closed 2,252 transaction side for a total sales volume of $769.55 million.

RealTrends recently caught up with O’Neill to discuss his career in music, and the lessons he has learned growing and leading his team.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brooklee Han: Before we dive into your career in real estate, can you tell me a bit about your music career?

Ryan O’Neill: Tim is three years older than me, and we both went to Notre Dame, so I was a freshman when he was a senior. I studied abroad for a year in college in Austria and all of my classes were in German, so I ended up majoring in German. I am the youngest of six kids and our parents were very supportive, but not so much in a career-focused kind of way. It was more: ‘Follow your heart and go where your heart is telling you.’ So, when Tim graduated and wanted to pursue music full-time our parents were super supportive. Eventually, we came up with the name The O’Neill Brothers, and we started selling our music through a variety of outlets.

BH: First of all, I just want to say what a small world it is because I was also a German major, and it is not too often you get to talk to another German major. But my next question is how did your background as an entrepreneur in the music industry help you as you started out in real estate?

O’Neill: Wow! You’ve got to be kidding. That is great!

But yes, music is very much a people business. You are constantly talking to people all day, and I took that into real estate. From the standpoint of building relationships and communication, having that background, as I got into the real estate business, I quickly realized that it is the same — it’s all about people.

BH: What initially prompted your interest in real estate?

O’Neill: I am a people person and want to help others. When I started, I was learning a fair amount and doing ok, sales wise, so I felt a calling to continue and to do my best to help others, whether that be my clients or now other agents.

BH: So, you started off your career working investors, how did you grow your business to where it is now?

O’Neill: After a while, I got busier. I would run different types of advertising to find other clients and investors. Through the process of working with a lot of these clients, I met other agents and folks who were actively looking into getting into real estate.

I felt that maybe there was a way for me to help more people if I had some other agents working with me. So, we just started to add a couple of agents to the team in different parts of the Twin Cities and slowly things just took off.

We had a variety of lead sources. We started doing a local radio show called “The Twin Cities Real Estate Radio Show” and we generated some business that way. Then, of course, we advertised online, and we found different ways to generate a legitimate business.

As for finding agents, that was pretty organic. We would get referrals from someone on a team of a friend who was at another company looking to make a move or someone looking to get into the industry that they thought would be a good fit.

BH: Can you tell me a bit about the makeup and structure of your team?

O’Neill: In about 2012, I stopped selling and transitioned my role into a full-time broker/sales manager/support mentor for all of the agents on the team. It’s fun to help people get where they want to go with their career.

Right now, we are a team of about 175 agents all of the Twin Cities with a wide variety of age and experience level. We have a strong retention rate with the top agents on our team. These are people that could easily start their own team, company or brokerage, but my approach to the team is that it isn’t “The Ryan Show.” We are stronger together and I like to hear from a variety of voices all of the agents can learn from each other and you never know when you are going to hear something that resonates with you.

We are spread out throughout the Twin Cities, and we keep expanding our reach further. We currently have 21 offices across the metro with a great front desk staff and commission processing departments, as well as continuing education and everything else a good brokerage needs to run smoothly.

Most of our agents are generalists and work with all types of [customers], but some agents, as they become more seasoned, may focus more on specific types of [customers] such as veterans or on specific communities. But it is all the agents’ choice what they want to do. I am not going to force anybody to have a certain kind of business.

BH: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in your career?

O’Neill: Some of the biggest challenges are all of the different market conditions. For agents who are newer to the industry, especially in the last few years, some are worried [about] what is happening right now with the rising rates.

I think it is easy to get stressed out, but what I’ve seen over the 20 years, is that no matter what the market conditions, focus on what we can control — our attitude, our effort and how we treat people. I’ve learned that you just have to block out the noise.

Another challenge, as a competitive person and team leader or broker, when people leave your team or when they decide to go somewhere else, it can be very hard. I realized that the business is not about me as a person or even me as a team leader.

People choose all different types of things for all different reasons, and I have found that the harder you push someone to stay with a company or team, the worse it ends. So, I have grown accustomed to being as supportive as I can be. Obviously, you are disappointed if someone wants to do something else, but you have to accept that some people value different things on different levels, and you just have to wish people well and move on.

BH: Teams have become more and more popular over the past several years. Why do you think that is?

O’Neill: When we started the team, it was a little bit of a newer thing. There were a few other teams in Minnesota, but it was still a bit of an unknown. A lot of brokers were unsure of what to think about teams. Some would feel threatened by them, but over the last five to 10 years, a lot of brokers have realized that teams can be a big ally of the brokerage. In a lot of cases, teams provide an additional level of training, support, and mentorship, which means that the broker doesn’t have to provide this extra level.

BH: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to being part of a team?

O’Neill: I think the biggest advantage with teams for a lot of agents is the lead generation and then the training and mentoring that take place. Sometimes it can feel like you are on your own when you’re at a big office, but with a team you have a close-knit group that is there to support you. That is so important, especially in a busy market like the one we have seen recently. You always have someone to call on to help with showings or to take care of a client request. It allows you to stay nimble in a fast market.

Of course, as part of a team you pay part of your commission on a transaction to the team, so if you are an agent and you are giving the team a cut of your commission you should be aware of the services and things you are getting in return. As a team leader you need to ensure that your commission structure is equitable. You can’t treat the human like a cog in the wheel, like another commodity.

BH: Why do you feel real estate is a good career option for someone?

O’Neill: It is good for someone to rally make a very generous living without a ton of formal schooling. There is just a lower bar for entry. For an entrepreneurial person, who wants some control over their schedule and life, it really affords them with a tremendous opportunity to reach for the stars and accomplished the goals they set. It is difficult work and there is a lot of independence which can be hard for someone who isn’t a self-starter.