*** May 2015 Update from the Author***
I have been out of BNI for 1 year now. I have read many of the comments people have left. I believe there is truth is every one of those comments. The BNI experience is going to differ greatly from place to place. I completely believe that some BNI chapters are beautiful havens for networking opportunities while others are squalid landfills to be avoided at all costs. It all depends on the people there. I just want to confirm that BNI is not for all businesses. I really believe that numbers-wise, it makes sense for big-ticket sellers. If you sell small-ticket goods or services or have low-margin wholesale goods like soap, then don’t do BNI — you need to find marketing on a large-scale: we’re talking about wholesale opportunities, flea market, radio, trade shows, Youtube branding, etc. BNI is best for insurance salesmen, financial services salesmen, real estate agents, and other salesmen. This is why you’ll find each BNI filled with them, often times with a different insurance person for each insurance type. A big part of their job is selling and the major way they sell is by growing their network, and BNI makes their job easy by giving them people to sell to. If their sale goes through — that’s money in their pocket. For a business like mine, web development, I can have big tickets as well, but it will still require a lot of time to go through the project, because my business is not about selling, it’s about building and consulting. Also, unfortunately for me, many of the referrals were for small-time entrepreneurs and not larger businesses, so they had low upside, which is not what I aimed for. Since leaving BNI, I have networked with more influential and older people with great results. I have also received a lot of my business through Google, as I place in the 1st page locally for many web-relevant keywords like “hawaii web design” and “wordpress developer hawaii.” I appreciate the lessons I learned at BNI because I did not know how to network before, but I am glad to not be in it anymore — too much pressure, meetings were every week, and B2B opportunities with medium-large businesses were not great, since you’ll find mostly individuals representing themselves (sole-proprietors and salesmen). Also, BNI asking you to recruit for them constantly by bringing guests or to invite people to the recruiting extravaganza is very annoying and does not benefit the chapter members that much, but is more so to increase income for franchise owners and the founder. In short, try it if the numbers make sense for your business. If not, your time and money are better spent in other venues. And if you’re a salesman, definitely sign up.
*** End Note***
I have been a BNI member for about 9 months at the Kinaole Chapter in Kaneohe, Hawaii. This article was written for people thinking about joining BNI who want to read an honest review before committing themselves to the BNI networking organization. Enjoy.
What is BNI?
Three words: Disciplined. Non-Competing. Networking.
BNI is an international networking organization founded by a guy named Dr. Ivan Misner. BNI is very popular — on the island of Oahu, where I live, there are about 17 chapters (yep, we don’t even have a Krispy Kreme, yet we have 17 BNI chapters).
Each week, BNI members gather at their chapters to network, exchange referrals, and build business relationships. The entire process is very structured. In fact, I would describe the structure as very standardized, as every chapter, no matter if in Honolulu or Houston, will run their meetings the same way.
Individual BNI groups are called chapters. Each chapter has their own members. And each chapter may only have one member to fill a certain profession or role. This means BNI is a non-competing network. If there ever is a need for plumbing work, for example, all the referrals will go to the plumber of the chapter. Also, no other plumbers may join the chapter. This helps prevent competition among members in the same chapter.
Who is BNI for?
People working independently require networks to find business and BNI helps fulfill that by interconnecting all member’s network. BNI is great for independent contractors, independent agents, business owners, freelancers, and anyone who relies on getting leads to do business.
Common professions you’ll see in BNI are financial advisors, real estate agents, mortgage associates, health and wellness product distributors, CPAs, chiropractors, insurance agents, massage therapists, bankers, and general contractors.
How old are people in BNI?
People of all ages are in BNI. In my experience though, there are rarely any people in their 20s in BNI. In my chapter, I’d estimate the average age to be 38 (with a sample size of about 32 members). I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people who are married and have kids. With that said, you definitely need to a bit mature if you intend to socialize with people at BNI (so no potty humor, please).
Why I Joined BNI
I joined BNI to make money.
When I started out as a self-employed web designer back in 2012, a few good friends of mine mentioned that networking would be extremely important for me. This was especially true because I had been an employee all of my life and never needed a professional network, so I had a lot of network building to do. One networking solution they mentioned was BNI.
I read reviews about BNI online. I was a bit hesitant, because the reviews made BNI sound really strict. I also read some angry reviews as well, from people who did not have their business grow that much from joining BNI. Some people even flat-out said BNI was a waste of time. Others said it was a scam.
Despite reading several, mostly negative reviews about BNI, there was one, very thorough review from a man out in Colorado. Like other reviews, he mentioned that BNI was strict. However, he also mentioned that BNI was responsible for 70% of his revenue the past year. Furthermore, he was in the web industry as well, and it was his earnest review that compelled me to join.
As for the bad reviews? I took them with a grain of salt, because it seemed that the authors had a issues with members in the group or had a negative attitude in general.
Does BNI Work?
“Does BNI work?” is akin to asking, “is networking important?”
The answer to both questions is “yes” — Afterall, BNI is just a method of networking. With that said, with both BNI and networking, there are questions you should ask yourselves continually to keep BNI working for you:
Is the chapter solid? A BNI chapter is only as strong as its members. It’s your job to visit a chapter and assess how powerful the chapter is and how well-connected the members are. General rule of thumb: older, professionals who have been living in the area for a long time are usually more connected and thus, make the chapter more powerful.
Is your trade or business useful? From my experience, it’s a lot easier for certain people to get business. I joined my chapter because my sponsor specifically told me that the chapter was requesting members to find a web designer to join. If you are running an obscure business, such as golf ball diving, then I doubt you’ll have much success getting referrals from other BNI members. It’s a good idea to re-examine your business or expand your list of services.
Do people know what you do? If you have a complicated business, you’d better be very, very specific about what you do and what type of client you’re looking for. Otherwise, every week, when you speak about your business, everyone just looks at you like they would the Lochness Monster. Also, if you’re like me, and you do many things related to websites, you should try and be specific about what you might want (dseign a website, consulting, mobile websites, installing online payment systems, etc).
What am I contributing? The motto of BNI is “giver’s gain” — this is the idea that people are willing to help you, as long as you can help them (aka reciprocity). Fair enough. Remember, BNI members are not your mom and dad — they aren’t obligated to help you with anything. If however, you can refer them business, even small business, then they’ll feel compelled to help you later (see Candy and Tips study). Also, if you are a business that deals in knowledge (lawyer, doctor, website developer, repairman), you can also consider little tips and answers to questions to be small bits of contribution to other members.
The BNI Routine
Every week, BNI chapter members meet. This is how our meetings look like:
- 8:15am: show up, have small talk with members, drink coffee to wake up
- 8:25am: every sits down and the chapter president welcomes everyone and says some things
- 8:35am: members go 1 by 1, giving their 60-second presentations about their business and what type of referral they are looking for (my chapter shortens to 45 seconds, because we have over 30 members)
- 8:55am: a member has an in-depth talk about their business for 7 minutes
- 9:03am: another member has an in-depth talk about their business for 7 minutes
- 9:10am: members go 1 by 1 talking about their contribution for the week: business referral, 1on1 meeting, BNI education credit, or testimonial for another member’s business.
- 9:25am: the meeting finishes, members talk some more, meet afterwards to talk business, or leave
BNI is Not a Scam
In case you were wondering, BNI is not a scam. Having been propositioned from various scams and multi-level marketing schemes, I can see how certain business models can be used to scam people out of their money to benefit the people at the top. BNI is not like that.
Argument: But there’s an upfront, membership fee for BNI!
Yes, BNI costs about $450 a year. This is the annual membership fee. Membership fees are very common for many types of organizations: Costco, country clubs, and fancy lounges. The purpose of a sizable membership fee is for two purposes: one is to line the pockets of people higher up (like founder, Ivan Misner). The second is to filter people.
Think about it like this: if you’re a landlord who is trying to rent out an apartment, do you rent it to some guy who promises that he’ll pay you at the end of the month or the guy the that already has a check for the security deposit and first month’s rent in hand? You choose the latter because he shows that he is both responsible with money and committed (money isn’t the only way to show commitment, but it’s a really good way). The same idea applies to membership.
Also, we have to look at this BNI fee as an investment. It costs $450 to join, but if your contacts in BNI can generate you more than $450 in business, then it’s a positive return (not accounting for opportunity costs and time spent at BNIs, of course).
Argument: But there are monthly fees! That’s how BNI gets you!
Yes, there are monthly fees at BNI, but those are really to pay for admin and/or breakfast and/or renting out the location. My monthly fees for example, are $15/month. Even when we used to have breakfast, it was still only about $48/month (though the breakfast was terrible). Maybe Ivan Misner and higher ups in BNI get a portion of the monthly fee, but it’s really so small that no one should care (seriously, $15 isn’t even enough for 2 lunches in Hawaii).
Argument: But BNI encourages you to invite people to join!
Yes, BNI does encourage you to invite other people to join. But no, not anyone can join — BNI is strictly for business owners and independent contractors. Scams often encourage you to get anyone to join because the sizable, initial costs alone will make the scammers profit. With BNI however, member quantity and networks determine the strength of a chapter, so all members are encouraged to invite business owners to join.
And yes, the truth is that Dr. Ivan Misner probably profits from everyone that joins BNI. However, this is fair. He’s an entrepreneur that created an international networking organization and he’s simply reaping the benefits of his work. Know that members do not get a commission for new member invitations. There is no “upline” or “downline” either, so there is no monetary incentive for members to have other people join BNI. This is a good thing too, because monetary incentives usually corrupt the hell out of everyone (see Subprime Mortgage Crisis)
The “Cons” of BNI
1. It costs money.
It costed me about $450 for a year’s membership. It’s a steep price to pay for something that I really wasn’t sure about when I first started. Also, if you’re on the younger side or just starting a business, you may not have that much money to put into something you’re not sure about.
2. Attendance is mandatory.
BNI meeting attendance is mandatory. The strength of BNI chapter relies on people showing up. Whenever your chapter meets, you’ll have to close off that block of time on your calendar for the rest of the year. You’re allowed 3 absences per 1/2 year. If you exceed those 3 absences, you may be warned, put on probation, or your membership may be terminated.
3. Success is based on the chapter members.
A chapter’s effectiveness is largely determined by people in the chapter. If it’s too small, if the members are not well-established networkers, or if there aren’t the right people in there to help you get business, the chapter may not get you a lot of business.
The “Pros” of BNI
1. It costs money.
Oh this isn’t a mistake – the sizable membership fee is actually a good thing. When you have any event for free, all sorts of people will show up. This will include those serious about doing business, but also include a lot of jokers who are not serious, have no money, or are just looking to plug their business. Over time, the presence of jokers brings the member quality down. It’s the same idea with Craigslist or a public park — when something is free, you’re going to find a lot of hobos, flakes, and jokers on there. Money is a great way to filter those people out, plain and simple.
2. Attendance is mandatory.
The mandatory attendance of BNI really weeds out people who aren’t serious. I’ll admit, if attendance was optional, I’d never show up! My meeting time is in the morning. I’m a night owl, so I am a zombie when I’m at my BNI 8:15am meetings (interestingly enough, I have a sudden burst of energy right after my meeting ends).
3. Success is based on the chapter members.
A business network grows exponentially with every additional member, as that one member has their own network with which they can refer for business. With that said, some chapters will be more successful than others. My own chapter, for example, does quite well because there are many veteran and well-established networkers.
Another reason why success is based on members is that certain industries complement each other. In my chapter, when one person is trying to sell a home, they often hire the carpet cleaner or the general contractor or refer the buyer to the mortgage broker. Or anytime there is a referral to our car salesman, there may be residual business for the car audio and aftermarket specialist in our chapter. So depending on what you sell, you may be able to get a lot of business simply by having complementary members.
How to Join BNI
To join BNI, you need an invite from a current BNI member (also referred to as a “sponsor”). You will submit an application, provide references, and pay an application fee (about $50 I think).
If you do not know anyone from BNI, you can still try to schmooze your way into BNI. Simple go to the BNI Chapter Locator, find a chapter close to you, and send a message to the president that you’re interested in BNI and you would like to come as a guest. The president should be welcoming. When you do go to BNI, come early, meet some of the members. You should be able to find rapport with a member or two. You might even want to schedule a lunch date with one of them to ask more about BNI afterwards. If the chapter and members look promising, ask someone to be your sponsor and start the application process.
You can visit multiple chapters, but only one will be your designated chapter.
Visit the chapters or acquaint yourself with someone in the chapter before you join. Every chapter is different because they have different people and different attitudes. Visiting will also you to see if that particular chapter is a good fit for you.
Not all members are equal. By this, I mean that although a chapter may have 30 members or so, it’s a handful of people that will generate the majority of business. This is because they are older, more established, and have a stronger network. Conversely, there’ll be many people who are younger and/or have weak networks and less referrals. Identify who is who and be sure to eventually meet with those stronger members.
Start selling small. Although members do have to face a lot of hurdles in order to be a member, how do we know that they’ll do a good job? My website contracts run in the thousands. Why should anyone trust me with thousands of dollars? If they do inquire with me, I’ll have to do all sorts of proposing and convincing to show them that I can do a good job. This is a hard sell. The smarter way is to start off in your chapter is to go with something small, like a $75 job. Do a good job there and that paves the way for bigger jobs later. If you do a spectacular job, that member will have a good testimonial for you during your BNI meeting and give you credibility. Small jobs = less risk for other people to try your products or services. Even if you screw them, guess what? They only lose $75. So start small if you can and build your reputation.
Do 1on1s often and early. 1on1s are scheduled meetings with BNI members to discuss business. It’s a mix of acquainting and learning about each other’s business and ideal client, so you can know what type of referral to look for. 1on1s are great for breaking the ice with other members or getting more information about a particular member’s business. This is especially helpful for complicated businesses or complicated industries.
Be mindful of your contributions to your chapter. No one expects everyone to pass referrals consistently. And if you look at the BNI numbers, a handful of chapter members usually account for the majority of business passed. However, you still don’t want to look like a scrub, so always be mindful of what you do for your chapter. Even if you do not have referrals to give for a couple weeks, you can still at least do a splendid job for any business that comes your way. Always be mindful of your contributions because it looks really bad when someone consistently has no contributions to the chapter.
My Final Thoughts
Whatever you do, keep in mind that networking and BNI are long term plays. You can’t expect immediate results. However, if you keep at it, you will network with the right people, exchange business, and grow your network.
Are you a BNI member? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. If you had a negative experience in BNI and it was due to actions of another member(s) in your chapter, be sure to attribute that experience to your members and not BNI.