Is BNI right for my business?

BNI is the world’s largest referral networking organization.  They have over 10,000 chapters across the world.  Many cities even have multiple chapters.

There are many advantages to joining a BNI chapter, especially for a new business.  It is a fantastic way to get your name out there and effectively guarantee that you’ll get business.  Like any form of marketing, there are also disadvantages.

Advantages

One seat per chapter – BNI has a very hard rule that there can only be one person of a given position in each chapter.  That means that if you’re a web designer, you’re the only web designer in that chapter.  This in turn means that the other members of your chapter are encouraged to send anyone they know who is looking for a web site to you.  Even if a business provides multiple services, they are required to stick to one service as their seat leaving room for more members.

Accountability – BNI holds accountability above all else.  Every meeting requires members to stand up and say who they gave referrals to and how much business they earned from BNI that week.  This ensures that members are always looking for ways to send business to the other members of their chapter and effectively guarantees that you’ll see referrals coming your way.

Education – BNI has multiple streams for you to learn about how to build your business and increase your revenue.  They have podcasts, online courses, monthly training sessions, and more. (As an aside, the podcasts are available to non-members as well. Just search for ‘BNI’ in your favourite podcast app.)

Visibility – Meetings are weekly.  This is part of the accountability standard but it’s also important to keep members top-of-mind.  By getting together weekly (either in-person or online) members are reminded regularly of what you do and how best to send business your way. This is further cemented by your “weekly ask” where you’ll have 30 seconds or so to give an example of a good referral for your business.

1-2-1s – These are one hour one-on-one meetings with members of your chapter or even members of other BNI chapters that allow you to better get to know each other and to better understand each other’s businesses.

Transferred Credibility – Someone referring business to you is worth more than anything you can ever say to promote yourself.  When someone is recommending you, they are putting their credibility behind you.  

Low Cost – BNI has reasonably low costs considering the marketing opportunity it provides.  In your first year you’ll pay a higher fee as a setup fee and you’ll also be expected to contribute ‘dues’ towards venue and food costs for in-person meetings however this is still significantly cheaper than nearly any other form of advertising that gives this level of exposure.

Disadvantages

Limited Industry Peer Networking -The biggest truth I’ve learned over years in business is the value of community over competition.  I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing and working with your industry peers instead of against them.  While one seat per chapter is generally an advantage, it can be disadvantageous as well since there’s less opportunity to get to know the other players in your industry. You can however get to know the people in your seat in other chapters (and from my time in BNI, these other businesses were and still are one of my main sources for referrals and vice-versa.)  

Quantity over Quality – You’ll unquestionably get referrals but they may not be great referrals.  With such a heavy focus on accountability, members feel pressured to refer, even if it’s not a solid lead.  That said, there are definitely steps you can take to help educate chapter members on who is a good referral for you but it will take time and you will find that some members ignore your education in favour of improving their stats.

Time – Being a member of BNI is a huge time commitment.  Between finding referral partners, writing your weekly asks, mandatory education, weekly meetings, 1-2-1s, and finding potential new members for the group, BNI is a tremendous time sink.  You are required to keep your stats up or you will be removed from the chapter.  It takes a very specific mindset and I for one found it challenging to switch between my BNI mindset and my creative mindset that I need to actually do my job.

Referral Expectations – You may find that there are members of your chapter who you simple are not comfortable finding referrals for.  They may be philosophical differences or you may take issue with their pricing or quality of work.  Transferred credibility is a doubled-edge sword.  It’s important to only put your name behind people you can trust.  If a business you referred drops the ball, that reflects poorly on you. You may feel pressured to refer people who you wouldn’t otherwise refer and you may even hurt your own credibility in the process.

The bottom Line

If you are interested in joining a BNI chapter, I’d recommend that you take the time to go as a visitor at least once to every chapter in your area with your seat open.  You’ll find that each chapter has a different culture.  It’s important that you find the one that works for you.  Beyond that, you’ll want to look for a chapter with complimentary businesses to yours as that makes for the easiest referral partnerships.  For example if you’re a painter, you’ll want to look for a chapter with a carpenter, and a general contractor as these are natural referral partners for your business.

BNI is not for everybody but it can be a fantastic way to build up your business if you’re willing to put in the commitment and can find the right chapter. Many people will be a part of BNI for two to three years while they build up their business while others make it a significant part of their long term marketing plan.

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