Wondering if you should join a BNI group? This article will help you decide.
- What is BNI?
- How do BNI groups work?
- Is BNI a waste of time? What's the catch?
- So how do you get along to one of the weekly BNI group breakfast meetings to check it out for yourself anyway?
- Key reasons why a BNI group didn't work for my remote business (in my first year of operating)
- Is BNI worth joining? Will joining a BNI group work for your business?
- BNI reviews from folks who have participated in BNI groups before
- What are some alternatives to BNI?
- How to get the most out of BNI and other networking events
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Is BNI a great business referral group worth the annual fee and time investment, or is it some kind of cult you should stay away from?
Here’s my experience and understanding of what BNI is.
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What is BNI?
If you’ve never heard of BNI, here’s a description from Wikipedia (before the page was removed):
Business Network International (BNI) is an American franchised networking organization with around 200,000 members in 7,500 local chapters worldwide. Members meet regularly to discuss business and support each other’s businesses by sharing referrals. It claims to be the world’s leading ‘referral organization’.
The official BNI website reports that “last year, members of BNI passed millions of referrals that generated billions of dollars of business for each other.”
They also share a couple of interesting “facts”:
FACT: 98% of businesses rely on referrals to gain new business.
FACT: Only 3% of businesses have a strategy for generating referrals.
I’m not sure where this data comes from or if the numbers are accurate but having worked in marketing for nearly a decade and having interacted with over a thousand small business owners over the years, I do feel that there is some truth to the suggestion that many businesses don’t have any real strategy for generating referrals.
So BNI basically provides a way for businesses to generate ongoing referrals.
Imagine having a group of people sending you referrals and essentially being your sales team… very compelling, right?
Sure, and you’ll need to consider a few more things before you sign up.
How do BNI groups work?
What this typically looks like is a weekly breakfast meeting with your local BNi chapter (group) where the following happens:
- You pitch your business,
- Set up 1-on-1 meetings with individuals within the group (for the coming week),
- Listen to a short educational workshop from one of the members, and then
- Report publicly on any new referrals you’ve generated for others in the group and/or referrals from other members.
Is BNI a waste of time? What’s the catch?
- An upfront annual membership fee (at least $1,000 AUD+ / $690 USD) plus ~$20 each breakfast
- Weekly attendance at the early morning breakfast meeting (so you better be a morning person!)
- You need to be returning the favour by generating leads & referrals for your fellow BNI members
So how do you get along to one of the weekly BNI group breakfast meetings to check it out for yourself anyway?
Like any serious business club, of course – you need to get invited by an existing member as their guest or as a “stand-in” for another member who can’t attend for whatever reason.
I’ve attended a couple of the meetings in the past couple of years (both times as a stand-in helping out my friends who are both members). While I enjoyed the free breakfast and seeing how the meetings were run, I felt that BNI was not right for me both times.
Key reasons why a BNI group didn’t work for my remote business (in my first year of operating)
- As I’m in my first year of a self-funded and bootstrapped business, the upfront investment really doesn’t work for me.
- The time commitment – weekly meetings for an entire year is difficult for me to commit to, especially as I’m creating a lifestyle business that allows me to travel, so I’ll take any chance I get to not be in Sydney. Add to that the 1-on-1 meetings with other members.
- Then there’s the commitment to find referrals for other members. I’m a natural connector, so this shouldn’t be a problem. However, based on the types of businesses I’ve seen at BNi, I’m not confident I can actually find referrals for them. That’s a problem.
Related: 6 Reasons NOT to Join a BNI Group
Then there’s the issue of ethics and choice.
Let me explain…
One person I’m connected to in a FB group put it this way:
“Personally, I think it (BNI) forgets a fundamental part of customer logic, which is choice matters.”
Consider this scenario…
Say you join a chapter, and there’s a bookkeeper there. Now assume you know another bookkeeper you love and trust (who’s doing your books already).
Then a friend in business comes along and says, “Hey, do you know a great bookkeeper?“
Do you refer business to the BNI bookkeeper (because you’d like to grow that relationship plus have them return the favour at some point, thus recouping your membership fee), or do you do right by your friend (as well as the person you have an established relationship with) and refer to your bookkeeper friend?
How can you authentically refer someone to a business if you’ve not actually used their product or service or truly know and trust the person you’re referring to can actually deliver?
There’s an unspoken rule in business that the person you refer somebody to is inevitably a reflection of you. So if that person does not deliver a great experience for your friend who trusted you when referring them, then you’ve lost credibility.
So it’s the choice thing that poses an ethical problem for me.
In addition to the choice conflict, I did not enjoy listening to people pitching their services (and I’m someone who loves going to startup pitch fests), so to hear them do it weekly for an entire year? No Thanks.
Is BNI worth joining? Will joining a BNI group work for your business?
The best advice I could possibly offer on whether or not BNI is right for you comes from Amanda Griscti, a member of the FlyingSolo online community:
BNI, as with any other networking group is only worthwhile if you are aware of what you want/need from the group and whether that group can deliver it. I would go along to one for a visit to see you like it, some groups you click with and some you don’t. Also look into other networking type groups too, dependant on your service and whether the people who attend these groups would need it.
BNI reviews from folks who have participated in BNI groups before
Here are some reviews shared by individuals who have experienced BNI previously.
“While BNI is a great organization and I’ve always enjoyed their events when I’ve attended, the cost is way out of my ball park at the moment. However, if I can make that $1000 back in 3 months, it may not seem like such a huge investment outlay.
On the other hand, I’ve been a part of professional networks that cost far less and actually offer far more in value, like the Project Management Institute. They only charge $167 a year and $25 for the Chapter fee. They have monthly dinner meetings that cost $50 and but they are a super opportunity to meet others in your field, they aren’t mandatory because we’re project managers, and they offer high level professional development curriculum, again optional.
I’ve also been a part of Toastmasters, another professional group that has a reasonable annual fee and offers many advantages as you increase your level of expertise in the organization.”
“BNI is great! We meet at 10am (so no early starts!) and I have met a wonderful bunch of people willing to help me grow my business. I have already generated more business from being a member. Also, in the current pandemic, when everyone is working from home, attending meetings online couldn’t be easier!”
“BNI can work for every business but not everyone. I have been in a core group and we have just launched I personally have had a very positive experience and it’s already paid for my membership. I did pay for the 2 yr membership too. I hold the telecoms seat at my chapter but I go to others as the IT seat. I would recommend don’t just look at it as your chapter go out subbing to others. You will be surprised about the givers gain it’s not just about the business but the relationships you build.”
“I was a member of BNI for two years in two different cities. Waste of time… wish I saved my money and applied my networking to more fruitful endeavors.”
(By the way, congrats on landing the awesome speaking gig, Cheryl! Referrals plus speaking opportunities – that’s definitely worth the investment for your business.)
You can read more – both positive and BNI horror stories – in the comments below. Thanks to everyone for your candid comments.
What are some alternatives to BNI?
Local networking groups
- 4Networking – Since 2006, 4Networking has become the UK’s largest joined up business network connecting thousands of businesses
- Local Chamber of Commerce
- Local Independent Networking groups. Check out meetup.com, Eventbrite, Humanitix, and ask at your local library and coworking spaces what events they have coming up.
There are several ways to network online, depending on what you’re looking for. Mastermind groups and online communities can be helpful resources if you’re looking to connect with like-minded individuals and experts in your field.
- Online mastermind groups – are typically small, private groups that meet regularly (usually via tools like Zoom, Slack, etc.) to discuss business, collaborate on projects, and support one another’s goals. Members can share ideas, ask for help, work on projects together, and give feedback to one another. You can search for mastermind groups on Google or even start your own mastermind group by inviting a few of your like-minded peers to get together.
- Online communities – are larger networks of people with common interests who come together to share information, resources, and advice. You can often find online communities for specific industries or fields. I’ve had some experience with The Network (formerly What Works Network), SPI Pro, James Schramko’s community (formerly SuperFastBusiness), Freelance Jungle (for Australian freelancers) and, more recently, Superpath (an awesome Slack community for content marketers) and Rachel’s List (for freelance writers in Australia). There are many. You just need to search for the type of community you want to be a part of.
How to get the most out of BNI and other networking events
To maximize your networking opportunities, you’ll want to become more visible, valuable, and connected in your industry.
Here are a few resources to help you do that:
1. Read Key Person of Influence – and implement the 5Ps in your business to grow your personal brand. (You can grab a free copy here)
2. Read our articles on:
- Marketing strategies for consultants and coaches: 29 ways to get more clients
- How to get traffic to your blog (that actually grows your business)
3. Subscribe to our newsletter for weekly authentic marketing tips.
Have you attended a BNI meetup or joined as a member? Does BNI work for you, or have you found a better group to be a part of? Share your thoughts in the comments below.