Have you ever heard of BNI? BNI stands for "Business Network International" and is the world’s biggest network for entrepreneurs. Once a week, the same group of entrepreneurs meets up for a breakfast at 7 am (networking starts at 6:30 am). Yes, in the morning!
Every group - so-called "chapter" - meets up on the same weekday which generates continuity. Always followed by a pre-defined agenda, the event is over at 8:30 am. And yes, besides networking, people are having a delicious breakfast. ;-)
This might sound a bit odd at first glance as networking events usually take place in the evening, without a strict agenda.
But BNI is different. I was member of a BNI chapter for almost two years in which I also built up a group with my colleagues. In this blog article, I want to share my experiences and talk about the pros and cons of BNI as they are usually questions coming up when people are invited to a BNI breakfast.
WHAT MAKES BNI SPECIAL
The weekly breakfast’s regularity generates trust among each other and allows for really getting to know each other well in the group, so that members can be recommended more easily. This is what BNI is all about - generating business recommendations.
Every BNI member knows other people in private and business life who need something. May it be a new bath in the parents’ home, an independent insurance check for the husband/wife, a printing company offering special papers for me as a graphic designer or an experienced divorce lawyer in case my best friend wants to get rid of her husband.
2. CONCRETE BUSINESS RECOMMENDATIONS INSTEAD OF "BLA BLA"
Recommendations are mostly generated when there is a concrete request from somebody. My best friend wants to file for divorce - I know a lawyer who is specialised on divorces and I'm certain he knows his business well as I meet up with him every week for a business breakfast.
3. 100 % FREE OF COMMISSION
It’s important to mention that all business recommendations are 100 % free of commission. (In case you might ask yourself now how the hell BNI finance themselves, you will find the answer further down in this article.) All profits generated by members are documented in writing (of course without looking into the members’ bookkeeping). Recommendations and 1-2-1 meetings are documented in writing too. (1-2-1 meetings are meetings of two BNI members to better get to know each others' businesses.)
Everything within BNI is very structured and a lot gets documented as this is the best way to make successes visible. "My" chapter reached nearly 1 million Euros of commission-free turnover for the members within the first year. A great success!
However, it has to be noted that there are entrepreneurs who had been working together before BNI. These turnovers would have also been generated without BNI, but they are still included in the BNI statistics. This is why BNI turnover statistics, that are forwarded to the press of course, have to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Another major aspect of BNI’s philosophy is that only one (!) member per industry is allowed. Hence: there is only 1 lawyer, 1 roofer, 1 physiotherapist, 1 graphic designer etc. This eliminates competition - in theory. The practice can look a bit different depending on the members. Read more about it further down in this article.
MY BIGGEST BENEFIT FROM BNI
My biggest benefit from BNI was the fact that I really learned how to present myself in front of others - face to face and short and snappy within 60 seconds (keyword "elevator pitch"). I had dealt with the elevator pitch before BNI, however, the weekly BNI breakfast forced me to present myself again and again. This "positive pressure" was really helpful. As an entrepreneur it’s really important to present yourself properly, BNI gives you the perfect training here.
Another fantastic aspect of BNI is getting to know so many different entrepreneurs with so many different business backgrounds. Still now, I’m in contact with some BNI members - in private and business life. This is really nice.
LET’S TALK ABOUT BUSINESS
LOOKING AT THE NUMBERS
How much did I benefit from the business network BNI in an economic way? When I calculate my hours spent for breakfasts, 1-2-1 meetings and booked jobs (recommendations to me that were converted into actual jobs) against the money earned, and then deduct my member fee (nearly 1,000 Euros per year) as well as the breakfast money (breakfast has to be paid separately every week), I have a positive balance bottom line. However, the hourly rate is only 23 Euro net. My regular hourly rate is 90 Euro net.
You can certainly not compare this 1 to 1, but it’s still the most significant key figure and the comparison is fair after nearly two years of BNI membership. So from an economic/financial point of view, BNI was only little profitable for me.
Speaking with other BNI members, I know that BNI is profitable for some and for some not. Precise questions like "what’s your financial benefit from BNI" were often followed by pondering silence and an answer like "well, you shouldn’t only see the money side of it, it’s also about the community".
A BNI power team consists of BNI members within the same chapter that work in similar industries or have the same clients. A plumber, electrician and constructor would be a power team for instance. Or a graphic designer, online marketer, copywriter and PR consultant would be another great power team. Positive syngeries and a good collaboration is an ideal win-win situation for all. This is the theory.
The practice unfortunately looks a little different sometimes. Like in every relationship, a win-win situation can only happen when everybody involved wants it. As soon as envy, jealousy or other negativities of the human character come into play, a power team is nipped in the bud. This then leads to valuable BNI members leaving the chapter, according to experienced BNI members. Understandable.
For me, this was the decisive motivation to leave BNI. Several industries similar to my business and - thus - great for a power team were blocked by 1 person, false statements - disprovable with facts - being made by that 1 person, targeted manipulation of specific people by that 1 person, and several BNI members complaining about that 1 person had a negative influence on my positive attitude towards BNI. Investing energy and time in a dead end does neither reflect my entrepreneurial thinking nor my style. Enough is enough.
WHO BNI IS BEST SUITED FOR
BUSINESSES WITH A STRONG REGIONAL FOCUS
It’s obvious that BNI members profit a lot from regionality. If you can offer your products or services mainly in your region only, BNI is perfect for you. To give you an example: A massage parlour based in Dublin targets people living in Dublin. A BNI chapter in Dublin is ideal here.
A producer for digital fair stand solutions, whose clients are spread across the globe, might find hardly any new clients via his/her BNI chapter.
Not only BNI members themselves are prospective clients, but also their contacts and their network. The possibility that a Dublin based massage parlour boss knows the marketing manager of a New York based real estate agency planning for a huge appearance on an international fair, is very limited (to stay with the example mentioned above).
I’m not only talking about my own experiences here. I invited entrepreneurs who I’m friends with or who I’m well connected with, to BNI breakfasts and received feedbacks that were very similar. "Too little fish", "too much international focus", "too much time investment for too little business opportunities" were the responses I often got from entrepreneurs acting less regionally (CEO of a Europe-wide charter airline, international marketing agency with domestic offices and abroad etc.).
For start-ups, BNI might be the best place beneath the sun in order to build up a wide network of contacts > nothing superficial, but with substance due to the timely constant of a weekly breakfast.
GROWTH VS. QUALITY
Naturally, a BNI chapter aims to grow and acquire new members in order to fulfill industry gaps within the chapter. Every member pays an annual member fee, this is how BNI is financed. However, chapter growth also massively contributes to the chapter’s success. The more members, the more turnover.
On the other hand, there is the quality of the chapter. Is it primarily about the amount of members? Or is it primarily about the quality of members, how much they contribute to the group and how professionally they work in their industry? This is for sure a balance act that is solved well in most cases, in my opinion.
Every now and then I (and other members) recommended bad quality without knowing. This falls back on the person who recommended, of course. But in general, chapter growth vs. chapter quality works quite well, I think.
BNI is intense. I’m not talking about the money you have to invest, I’m talking about the time you have to invest. For the breakfast, networking before and afterwards and other meetings you have to calculate at least four hours per week (forget 1.5 to 2 hours per week, it will definitely be more, trust me). Every week. You have to think thoroughly about that.
From an economic point of view, it’s worth a try - mostly for local/regional businesses and start-ups I would say. From a personal point of view, you’ll really learn how to present yourself much better than ever before.