Should I Join a BNI Chapter?

I’m a guy who’s into networking, meeting other business people, and making relationships, and doing business. So, naturally, when I found out about BNI (Business Network International), I was absolutely hooked. I took a membership application home with me the first day, and brought it back the next week with my payment. I didn’t know much about it, or how the meetings worked, but I loved that I found a group dedicated to meeting every week and passing business back and forth.

Eventually, I became more and more involved with the chapter I was a part of, and joined the membership committee, then was was nominated for Chapter Vice President and did that for about a year, finally becoming a BNI Ambassador right before I dropped out. You could say I was crazy about BNI, and it was true—I loved it. I was a member for just over two years, and found it to be a valuable addition to my professional life. In the second year, I made over 70% of my annual income through referrals from my BNI Chapter. …and that is money talking.

Since that time, and since I’m not a member any more, I’ll occasionally talk with people who are thinking about joining a BNI chapter, and aren’t sure whether it’s a good fit for them or not. So here is my humble and honest recollection of my experience as a BNI member. In case you haven’t heard of BNI before and aren’t sure what I’m talking about, here’s a super-quick explanation of what BNI is: a membership organization where independent business people join the group and come to weekly meetings for the purpose of passing business referrals to each other. Pretty simple, right? It really is, at least on that level. So if you’re interested in joining, let me explain some quick requirements for membership.

Requirements for joining a BNI chapter:

  • You must work full-time in your position (i.e. no part-time employees allowed)
  • You must commit to showing up to the weekly meetings (there IS an attendance policy)
  • You must be willing to give referrals to other members in the chapter, and follow up on the referrals you receive
  • You can’t be a member of another competing organization
  • Only one person per industry may join a chapter

Still interested? Good! Here are some of the pros and cons of being a member of a BNI chapter.

Pros of being a BNI chapter member:

Joining a BNI chapter is an excellent way to get to know lots of business people very quickly. If you’re new to the town you live in, or just aren’t well-connected, joining a BNI Chapter is the fastest way I know of for meeting people and becoming known. It’s structured in such a way that you are required to meet with the other chapter members during the week and get to know their business, as well as talk about your own business. This was one of my favorite aspects of being a BNI Member. It ensures that you get to learn all about the other members, and they get to know all about you.

Established BNI Members are generally trustworthy. While it’s not impossible to get burned by a BNI member, the system is structured so that there’s a LOT of accountability and transparency. If you purchase a product or service from a BNI member and he screws up, you can bet the rest of the chapter is going to find out. So he has an incentive to make things right to protect his reputation. This is good. As I said, this isn’t always foolproof—and the people who most often break this rule are the new members who haven’t already built up their reputation. But if you’re looking for a network of people in all kinds of industries who you have a good chance of being able to trust, BNI is for you.

BNI is extremely structured. Something you’ll learn at “leadership training,” (which is, incidentally, mandatory), is that BNI has a strictly-enforced structure and process for everything. There are two mandatory meetings each year you’ll need to go to: Member Success Program (MSP), and Leadership Training (LT). This is where you learn alllllll the rules, and there are lots of them! What I learned to appreciate about their structure is that it makes it very easy for each member to know what is required of them at all times, and if you take advantage of the system, there’s a lot of support in place.

BNI charges for membership. Why is this in the “pros” list? It is a good thing, in my opinion, because it keeps flakes from joining. You know the type… they show up for one meeting, get everything they can for free, talk loudly about all their products and services, and never come back. Personally, I wasn’t interested in doing business with people who couldn’t afford to take their business serious enough to commit to joining a group (instead of just trying to sell to people they didn’t know). There are lots of other free groups all over town that start up and shut down frequently due to non-committal people like that, and that’s OK for them, but BNI chapters are in it for the long run. And the dues you pay cover the charges for the paperwork and the corporate structure that keeps it afloat.

Attendance is required. Why is this a good thing? For the same reason as above. People who can commit to show up every week are proving themselves to be dependable, generally trustworthy people. If they can’t commit to coming each week, that’s fine, but again, there are other groups for that. I liked the attendance requirement—it meant my willingness to get up early every Thursday at 6:00am to get ready for my BNI chapter meeting meant that others were doing the same. I appreciated that.

It’s not a “leads group.” I’ve already mentioned the free BNI clones that have no attendance policy, but something you should also be aware of is that some of these groups meet for the purpose of passing “leads,” qualified or not. There’s a least one group in my town that has a policy of requiring every person to bring one lead each week. That, to me, is ridiculously arbitrary and pushy. I would never have been able to join a group like that—I hate playing “business card poker”—tossing business cards on the table to whomever wants to pick them up—and I’m very protective of my business relationships. I’m not about to hand out my friend’s business card to someone I don’t know and say “Here you go, this is John’s card. Give him a call. I have no idea if he wants your products or services, but drop my name and that should get you somewhere.” I’m not a used car salesman—I only do business with people I know and trust. And that’s the BNI model, and I was always a BIG fan of that.

BNI has disciplinary policies in place. If a member starts doing a poor job taking care of referrals, or is being unethical, there’s a membership committee ready to handle complaints, and they have a clearly-defined process for conflict management. Generally, it works pretty well, and unethical members “graduate” themselves (our secret word for “get kicked out”) from the chapter eventually.

You can make long-lasting relationships in BNI. Because, as I’ve mentioned, there’s a membership fee, an application process, and an attendance requirement, the people who are in BNI chapters generally stay for a long time—several years or more. Because of this, and because you see each other every single week, it’s easy to get to know people. For example, I haven’t been in a BNI chapter for over three years, and there are people I met in my chapter that I still keep in touch with and do business with regularly. Yes, you can make relationships in other groups, but I really think BNI does the most to nurture these kinds of relationships.

They only allow one person per business category in the group. This is a mixed blessing, and some people love it and some people hate it. This means if a chapter already has a roofer, and a visitor shows up who also has a roofing business, he’s welcome to stay for the meeting, but he can’t join the group, and he can’t advertise his business either. This gives a form of protection to the existing roofer and keeps the chapter captive—which is something your roofer should guard jealously. People join BNI to get referrals from people, and by spending their time and money in the chapter, they’ve earned the right to be at the top of the list. And if you think this sounds unfair to the visiting roofer in my example, fear not: a BNI chapter would be very accommodating in helping him find another chapter that needs a roofer.

There IS a chapter for you, at some place and some time. Depending on the city you live in, there may be two, or ten, or fifty BNI chapters near you. They all meet at different locations, on different days of the week, and at different times of day. If you want to meet on the Westside, there’s a chapter for you. If you want to meet at Southgate, there’s a chapter for you. Want a lunch meeting? There are “lunch chapters.” Are you only able to meet on Tuesdays? There are chapters that meet on Tuesdays. Pretty much anyone’s schedule can fit in with some BNI chapter. You’ve just got to find the right one.

It’s a great place to get over your fears. If you need some help with learning how to network professionally, or get up in front of a group and speak, I can’t think of a better organization to join than BNI. You’ll have a chance to work on your skills for meeting new people, scheduling meetings, learning basic conversational skills, and public speaking. And everyone in the group wants you to succeed so it’s a great place to learn and make mistakes in a tolerant environment.

Now, as I said, I spent about two years as a member, so I can also attest to some of the negative aspects of being in a BNI chapter.

Cons of being a BNI chapter member:

One morning per week is totally shot, every single week, all year long. Whatever day your chapter meets, whether it’s lunchtime or breakfast time, you need to clear your calendar for the rest of the year. Plan on not being able to go anywhere else or do anything on that day of the week. When I was a member, we met each Thursday at 7:30am-9:00m. But if I throw in a little networking after the group, and some membership committee items after the meeting (because I was in chapter leadership), I effectively had to block out 7:00-10:00am every single Thursday morning. So any events, meetings or functions that happened to fall on that day and time, would not work for me. That got annoying after a while, having no flexibility. People I knew would invite me to business meetings on Thursday mornings and then roll their eyes and say “oh yeah, wait, you can’t… you have BNI…

Some BNI chapters can be nepotistic or “cliquey.” Notice I said they “can” be. They’re generally very open and welcoming to visitors and new members, but there are definitely some clubs out there that have an unspoken understanding of who’s in charge, who not to piss off, and who you need to impress before you’re able to join the group. Just watch out for these kinds of chapters.

The attendance policy is overly strict. You’re only allowed to miss three meetings in a six month period, which is a total of six meetings per year. That means that except for holidays that chapters may take off depending on the day of the week they meet, you should plan on being there around 46 weeks per year. If you’re taking an extended vacation (say, two or three months) to the Bahamas, you’re going to need to drop out of your chapter because you can’t be gone that long, even if you send a substitute. BNI will only “suspend” a membership by offering you “medical leave,” but that’s only for medical purposes, and it has a maximum of eight weeks and even then you still have to send a substitute. I understand why they do this—they don’t want a chapter’s position held hostage by someone who isn’t there, but it can be really hard to work with if you have a situation that needs time off like this.

The “BNI way” is the “right way,” and there is no other way. The BNI system is set up in such a way to imply that you’ll never be able to do business outside of the BNI way. The unspoken attitude is not just that free leads groups and Chamber After Hours events are different, but that they’re inferior. I’m all about the structure in place, like I’ve said, but I don’t think that the BNI way is “the only way.” There are lots of ways to do business—my business model just happened to jive with the BNI way. I’m sure if you ask a BNI representative, they’d disagree with this point, but you can judge for yourself. As I said, it’s unspoken. It’s an attitude, not something they’d admit officially.

Pressure to perform. There’s often a pressure, whether your chapter has referral requirements or not, to bring a certain amount of qualified referrals every week. When I was a member, I was a small business owner who ran a one-man shop. It was difficult for me to find referrals for the other members of the group, especially because the only people I really knew in business when I first got started were already in BNI(!). So in a way, it felt like I joined BNI so I could give and get referrals, but then I had to go join other groups elsewhere to try to bring referrals into the group. This was a bit of a surprise, and seemed backwards: I joined BNI to get referrals, not so I could go find other groups to join to find them for other people! 

The pressure to produce can be so strong, sometimes, that you may find yourself making up referrals on the spot to try to keep up. (Example: you know that your roof is probably OK, but you pass a referral to the roofer in your group to come take a look at your roof, just so you can “have a referral.” I saw this happen numerous times, and this happened especially with the Multi-Level Marketing people—someone would make up a referral for the Mary Kay lady because they knew they could spend a minimum amount ($20 or $30) and still get kudos for passing a referral.) There is definitely “credit” earned for referrals given, and everybody knows exactly how many referrals each members have passed—it’s in the report that everyone gets. …which brings my to my next point:

Your performance is measured. Everything you do in the group is measured. The Vice President keeps track of every single time you’ve been absent, every time you’ve been late, every time you’ve sent a substitute, every referral you have passed (or haven’t), every training meeting you’ve been to (or haven’t), every time you have brought a visitor (or haven’t), the dollar amount of the referrals you have passed, and much more. This is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s just something to be aware of. If the chapter sets goals (and each chapter is able to at their discretion), and you fail to meet these goals, actions can be taken against you. These actions are usually very supportive and intended to help you make the most of your membership, but it is something to be aware of. It can definitely feel like you’re back in kindergarten when you get a notice that you’ve had a few “tardys” in the past few months.

It’s expensive. It costs over $500/yr to join a BNI chapter. For me, it made sense, and I certainly made enough return on my investment to justify the cost. But then you’ve also got to think about food (if your chapter meets at a restaurant), or a room rental (if you meet at a rented location), which can run an additional $5-$15/week. So $500 for membership, plus food can cost you around $750-$1,300/year when it’s all said and done. You can control a lot of that cost by choosing your food carefully, but you need to consider this first. And some chapters have a minimum charge whether you eat anything or not. I can’t tell you how many times people forget the cost of the the room rental and the food when joining. Please don’t join a BNI chapter if you can’t afford it.

It’s more of a time commitment than you realize. It’s easy to say that your chapter only meets for 1.5 hours once a week, and that’s true. But you’ve also got the aforementioned Member Success Program and Leadership Training, in addition to the requirement for having “One to Ones”—where you meet the other members for at least an hour outside of the meeting. And if you get involved in the chapter leadership (as you’ll eventually be pressured to do), your total time commitment can be upwards of ten hours a week. For me, it was worth it, because I made tens of thousands of dollars each year, but that definitely takes time. So you’re going to be pouring lots of time into your BNI chapter right after you join, and you may not see a return for several months.

Thinking about joining a BNI chapter? Here’s my advice:

Shop around. I was lucky, I think, that the first chapter I ever visited was the one I joined and that turned out to be ok. But not everyone is that lucky. Sometimes a chapter can appear to be excellent, but after a few visits you start to see the true character. And some chapters will pressure you to join their group without taking a look at the others. Just ignore that and go visit as many as you need to until you find one that fits you well.

Understand that every chapter is different. While the actual meeting agenda is the same for every BNI chapter in the world, don’t assume that the chapter down the street is anything like the one you visited last year on the other side of town. Each chapter has its own culture and flavor. Every chapter meets in a different location, some meet in restaurants, some meet in office buildings around a big round table, some meet at coffee shops, and heck, there are probably even some chapters that even meet outdoors. Some have a very uptight culture filled with people in suits and ties, and some have a blue-collar feel with tradesmen wearing Carhartts and work boots. Some chapters have a great sense of humor and appreciate lots of jokes and jabs, while others are all-business, all the time. I always preferred the chapters that were a mix of both—chapters that were free to joke around and smile, but also got business done. Again, just find one that’s right for you.

Understand that it takes time. BNI likes to use a “farmer vs hunter” analogy: BNI (and networking and building relationships in general) is like farming: you till your soil, plant your seeds, water the seedlings, pull the weeds, and carefully attend to your crop… then when it’s all done, you (hopefully) get a bountiful harvest. That’s what BNI is all about. It’s not like hunting, where you get in your car, drive up to the mountains, pull out your gun, shoot a deer and bring it home. The “hunter” model is extremely short-term, and it’s what people making cold-calls and interrupting you ask you walk past their kiosk at the mall are doing. BNI is more about building relationships that last for years, and I completely agree with this method. It’s a long-term view. You’re putting in time and effort knowing that your efforts might pay off now, or they might pay off sometime in the future. But you HAVE to be patient.

Some people join a chapter and are all excited, but they get about 9 weeks into it and say “screw this—I haven’t gotten any leads. I’m quitting.” This is totally the wrong way to look at it. By joining a BNI chapter, you’re making a lifestyle change. It’s a long term investment. Odds are, unless you run an auto lube shop that offers oil changes for $18, you’re not going to get referrals right away. For example, when I first joined my BNI chapter, I was representing a custom home builder. It took me about a year before I got a solid lead, but when I did, it was excellent: a family with about $800,000 to spend and they were ready to build. My company didn’t close the deal, but that wasn’t the fault of the guy who referred them. The referral was gold, but it took time. I had to invest my time and energy into becoming a productive member of the group first.

Beware the failing chapter. There are some chapters that don’t follow the rules. This is where I remain convinced that the BNI corporate policies are a great asset to the chapters—the chapters that start breaking the rules start to lose members rapidly, and sink so low in membership that the group eventually has to disband. Yes, there’s even an official procedure for dismantling a chapter, and they do a reasonably good job making sure everyone involved finds a new BNI chapter. Just be aware that the group you visit and consider joining may be on it’s way out, and if it is, it’s going to be a heck of a lot more complicated trying to sort that out. Instead, just find a better chapter to start with. To that end, here are some signs of a failing chapter. A failing chapter:

  • Has low membership, especially a chapter that’s been around for a long time yet has few members.
  • Has low attendance by the members.
  • Doesn’t stick to the pre-planned agenda.
  • Doesn’t clearly identify chapter leadership.
  • Has a lack of respect for the BNI rules.
  • Has an informal approach to the application and membership process.
  • Has a lax attitude towards discipline and doesn’t follow through on sending disciplinary letters.
  • Has lazy members who show up late or come unprepared.

All the reasons above are difficult to assess for a first-time visitor, especially someone that hasn’t seen a BNI chapter function properly in the past. So what may make things easier are watching out for the signs for a successful chapter. The successful chapter:

  • Starts on time and ends on time.
  • Eagerly welcomes newcomers, introduces them to the existing members, and makes it abundantly clear that they’re available to answer questions.
  • Has lots of referrals passed during referral time.
  • Announces the amount of business transactions (the “closed business report”) with a high dollar amount. Listen carefully for this part! A large and successful chapter should be passing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars each week.
  • Follows up with visitors.
  • Gives new members the tools needed to succeed.

Overall, please remember that having a BNI membership is not a marketing strategy! Lots of businesses join BNI and that’s all they do to promote their business. This is not a good way to go. It’s just one piece of an overall marketing or sales strategy. If your chapter ever fizzles out for any reason, you’ll have nothing to fall back on. So use it to your advantage, but don’t make it your only plan for getting new business.

So, should I join a BNI Chapter, or not?

In conclusion, I generally DO recommend that small businesses join a BNI chapter if they can. But I think they need to make an informed decision. I don’t think anybody at BNI ever sets out to confuse anyone about the requirements of membership and they’re very clear about membership responsibilities, but I think most people that join don’t have a clear picture of what an active membership looks like. It’s definitely a commitment, and you need to be aware of that. But if you find the right chapter, put in the work it takes, it can be very rewarding.

19. February 2012 by
Categories: Business | 86 comments

  • http://amitchellmedia.com Andy Mitchell

    Spot on Ron! I don’t think any new member has a clue how much time and energy has to be set aside for this. My meetings took up to 4 hours of my day with driving, getting there early as a visitor host, and staying after to chat/network. But all that set aside, I learned a TON about networking and how to effectively communicate with other businesses. It also taught me how to give a good presentation in front of a large group. This ended up benefiting me greatly 6 months ago when I had to present a project to a large company. I ended up getting the job and was my biggest project to date!

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Nice, Andy! I should also point out that I met you at BNI! And I agree—BNI is a great place to work on customer presentations. Congrats on winning the big project!

  • Mcintoshvideo

    Good info . I joined a chapter and was nailed by an unethical member in the first month and never recovered the respect for the person. This person went on to slander me to other members so I was forced to end my membership. There was a click and a click bully of which I could not tolerate.Most of the members were very nice people.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Wow, I’m sorry you had a bad experience. Cliques do happen, and I can see how you’d have a bad experience. A good membership committee would be there to enforce disciplinary measures if a chapter member is spreading falsehoods about another member, but as you’ve apparently learned the hard way, some chapters just don’t care. And if that’s the case, it’s best to try to find a better chapter. Just don’t forget to contact your corporate BNI office and ask them for a certificate of credit so you don’t lose your money! If you do it properly, you can move to a different chapter for a minimal cost rather than having to start over again.

      I hope it all works out for you, and good luck with your business!

    • susan

      This is actually happening to me right now in my BNI

  • Daniel Junkins

    Thanks for your feedback- I am a sales manager for a very small general contracting company- and have been a member of a BNI chapter in the Greater Boston area for about 3 months- and the time commitment is just massive and really cuts into my time and the company time (about 3 hours on Tuesday mornings. The time commitment has a major impact on our business. We have decided to discontinue going to this particular chapter because the chapter leans heavily in the financial/law/insurance community. Secondly, the head of the BNI group represents a financial company, yet he has a coworker who works for the same company but represents a different service field that the company serves. Which seems a bit fuzzy to me. Especially when they do presentations- they are speaking for the same company. On top of that the head of the BNI group erroneously announced one of the members was out because he had missed too many meetings- then was told that was not true. I just think you should not make those kinds of statements publicly without doing your homework. Also, there is a lot of money being made, but the majority of the money being made in the group is being generated in these industries. There are only 2 other blue collar types in the group. The meeting is run very efficiently- sometimes too much. And there is a huge expectation that I and my company take on the services being provided within the chapter as well. As a small business, we are not in a position to take those kinds of expenses on. I am hopeful of finding another chapter (of which there are many) in the Boston area that may have more blue collar types in the group. Thank you for the insights provided on your blog here- any tips, feedback or general comments are welcomed.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Daniel. I certainly understand the time commitment problem. Something I did to figure this one out was calculate how many hours I spent per year doing BNI-related things, and then figure out how many overall dollars I made through BNI, and found that it made financial sense for me to keep being a member because I made a significant amount of dollars on average for each hour I spent on BNI activities, but decided I had to stop being so involved in leadership. That was the big killer. The membership committee meetings, pre-screening applicants, setting up and breaking down the room, entering referrals into the website, reviewing new member applications, following up with member complaints, planning for the “member extravaganzas,” etc. I had to learn to strike a balance and start asking other people to help as well.

      Having been a BNI Ambassador, I got to visit lots of other chapters, and I’ve found that each chapter is different, and really has a different culture. In my chapter, blue-collar companies did really well because the average ticket price is really small (say, $80 for a plumbing fix, or $35 for an oil change on your car) whereas our white-collar financial/insurance types had a much harder time getting started (example: selling an $800/yr life insurance policy takes a lot of time because it’s expensive and you need to earn the trust of the members). It sounds like your chapter is a different story. I’d suggest you do what you’ve been thinking about doing: go out and look at several different chapters and see if you can get a transfer. Corporately, I know BNI frowns on this, but it’s probably worth it if they’ll let you.

      Your final point is the one I struggled with the most: there’s an unspoken pressure to use the people in your chapter even if you already have established relationships or have ethical issues or personality conflicts with some other members. This was a tough one for me—there were some people I just didn’t trust but didn’t have an ethical complaint against, per se. In that case, I just tried to ignore any awkwardness. But even if you already have an established relationship with a vendor, it’s still good to know another one in case your old standby doesn’t work out. For example: if you have contact that makes all your company’s signage, you may not want to hire the sign company rep in your BNI Chapter. But what if you need a sign made at the last minute and your normal sign guy can’t do it in time? That’s a great opportunity to give the new guy a try, particularly because if he’s smart, he’ll try really hard to use that opportunity to earn your business.

      I hope it all works out for you!

      • Dan Junkins

        Thanks Ron- I did contact the regional office of BNI and they did give me a letter of credit good for two years if our company chooses to become a member of a different chapter in the area- thus we don’t have to pay for membership fees again. And I did speak with another director of BNI this morning for about 45 minutes- I got great feedback about recognizing that BNI is really an investment of time and managing time efficiently and visiting chapters to find a better match. So thank you for all of the feedback- and I will let you know how we do going forward.

        • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

          That’s great news, Daniel! Good luck with your BNI chapter search. I hope it goes better for you. I’d love to hear how it all works out down the road. :)

  • Kartik Sharma

    Ron, Just have a question to ask, I deals in HR business , usually provides resources to IT and Non-IT Companies in India, I have been with first chapter in india, the only thing which i feel to say, it is not more about local business, and people are from different background, If i have to connect with Hr Manager of top leading IT company, how would i get that contact through this group. Because in a group they take 1 individual from 1 category.

    Regards
    Kartikey Sharma

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Hi Kartik! If I’m understanding your question correctly, I think the solution to that would be to have the membership committee of the chapter ensure that a staffing agency can ONLY represent “temporary” laborers or contract-to-hire workers, rather than representing each individual industry. Remember, the membership committee sets the tone and the expectation for the entire chapter, so only they can make sure that no conflicts like this arise.

      For example, when I was in BNI in the very beginning, I represented a General Contractor that was a residential homebuilder and remodeler. As such, it was our job it to oversee lots of little different jobs during a remodel. A GC oversees a flooring contractor, a roofer, a drywall contractor, a landscaper, etc. I was *not* allowed to represent all those trades individually, and we did in fact have those trades represented in the group, such as a flooring guy, a roofer, a plumber, etc. My category was providing General Contracting services. So if a plumbing referral came into the group, we would give it to a plumber; if an electrical referral came in, we would give it to the electrician, and so on. But if a referral for a home addition, kitchen remodel or bathroom remodel came in, that was given to me.

      It’s all about how the chapter is set up, and the membership committee can either set up a chapter for success or failure based on what each member has for their category. So in your case, your referrals would be for people looking to order temporary staffing, so I’d ask anyone who brings in a referral to specify whether they need temps, or want to completely outsource what they’re doing. I hope that helps!

      • Sarab

        But in that case, how would you provide referrals to the plumber?
        Would you not rather keep that client for yourself since you also provide plumbing services?

        • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

          Hi Sarab, the answer’s simple: because I didn’t want a plumbing job. While a plumber would be happy to get an $84 toilet repair job, our General Contracting company wouldn’t because there’s nothing in it for us. However, if a referral was passed for a $20k kitchen remodel, we would probably hire the plumber to do the plumbing but the job would go to us because it’s a referral that requires a GC. :)

  • John MacLennan

    Ron, I appreciate your candid comments. I am President of BNI Northwest Success in Grande Prairie AB Canada. Our chapter is less than a year old so you have a longer track record to speak from. I speak from a position of being absolutely “for” BNI but you make excellent comments with respect to due diligence that interested people should take to heart as they consider the commitment and investment.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Awesome, John! Thanks for dropping a line, and congrats on passing your one-year chapter anniversary! I hope your chapter is having a screaming success, eh! ;)

  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    Hi Linda,

    Thanks for the kudos! You have quite a neat business, and I’m not surprised to find out that you don’t have much competition! That’s a good thing, and if I were in your shoes, I’d try to find a BNI chapter that has as many potential “power partners” as possible, such as Realtors, Homebuilders, and probably Property Management companies. And don’t be discouraged—I highly recommend that you at least visit a few chapters before making a decision. BNI works VERY well for one-man (or “one-woman”) shops. If you can get a group of people to faithfully send you qualified business referrals, you can significantly reduce the amount of time you spend on sales and finding business, so you’ll have more time to work on your business.

    Good luck, and let me know if you do end up visiting or joining any chapters. I’d love to hear how it goes!

    -Ron

  • Harry

    Just thinking of joining a chapter , went to first meeting today . I found it very positive.

    Kind regards
    Harry

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Nice, Harry! Good luck—I hope it works out for you.

  • Stephen Moser

    Wow!  Great information Ron.  Thanks for taking the time to put together such a useful article.  I have two questions: First of all, since you seem very positive about BNI, why did you decide to leave?  And second, I’m considering starting a new chapter in a geographical area that doesn’t have one. Do you know if there are additional costs in starting a chapter beyond the usual registration and membership fees?

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Thanks for the questions, Stephen! The first is very easy for me to answer: I was offered a job doing marketing in-house for a software company and decided to take it. Because of that, I wasn’t going to be self-employed full-time anymore, so my need to go find new clients was gone, and my new scheduled didn’t really allow for it anymore. I stayed friends with most of the people in the group though, and I still do business with a lot of them on a regular basis.

      The other question about starting a new chapter, I don’t know for sure. I do believe that there are no additional fees. Here’s how starting a BNI chapter works (and I know, because I helped start the chapter I was in): you get a few committed people together who want to start a group, and then contact BNI corporate. If you get their blessing, they will help you grow the chapter to “core” membership—which I believe is 12 members—and they you’ll receive your charter or official BNI status. Until then, you’re considered a “pre-core” group and you’re not an official chapter.

      The good news is, you don’t have to pay until your group finally reaches “core” status and you launch. The bad news is, you only have a certain number of months to get the group off the ground, so if you can’t get enough participation from your group and you never reach 12 members, they’ll shut you down and you won’t be able to start the chapter after all. So the trick is you really need committed people to show up.

      My chapter launched, and went from 11 members when I joined in pre-core, and grew to over 35 members and was a “Showcase Chapter” by the time I left. So we were successful. But I’ll tell you—it took a lot of work, and a lot of inviting people, and a lot of visitor days. I’ve also seen pre-core chapters fail. They just can’t seem to get enough steam to move past the 12-person minimum. When that happens, morale deflates, people get frustrated and leave and go join existing chapters if they can.

      Moral of the story: get a few really well-networked and committed people to join you, and try to launch it as soon as you can. Good luck!

      • Stephen Moser

        Ok, I’m going to go for it.  Thanks for the information and encouragement, Ron!

        • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

          Awesome! Let me know how it goes when you do! I love to hear real-life stories about things like that.

      • Cheryl Kessler Katz

        Thank you Ron. I have been “shopping” networking groups and options for my small health and wellness business and am strongly considering investing in one of the BNI chapters that I visited recently. Your pros and cons and definitions in general have been very helpful. Networking is very important to a small business person and I thank you very much for your help and support. Your input is always welcome and I’d love to connect with you further.

        • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

          Awesome, Cheryl. I’m glad you found it helpful. Good luck in your chapter!

  • Manystyles1purse

    Hi Ron: thanks for your post. I am an MLM (not Mary Kay, but Miche, LLC- purses with exchangeable outer shells.) and I was wondering if BNI is a good fit, generally speaking, with MLM’s… what is your take?

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      MLMs generally go VERY well in BNI groups, because an MLM’s sales model is usually built on selling through relationships, and BNI is all about relationships. You will need to beware of one thing though: BNI’s policies specifically preclude MLMs from using BNI to recruit new people for the MLM—you can only try to sel the actual products themselves. You won’t be able to try to build your “downline” (or whatever it’s called). So make sure you’re ok with that before you join.

  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    Luke, here’s my view on all that: BNI is fairly unfriendly to companies that have an “agency” model or any other model of being a “full-service” company. (As a matter of fact, they actually hate the term “full-service company” and tell members not to use this phrase.) This is one of my big disagreements with BNI’s corporate policies. I do understand where they’re coming from, but I think they’re often too pushy about this.

    Here’s what I mean: agencies are often used as an example during “Leadership Training” of the kind of business membership BNI doesn’t want. They’ll tell chapters “If a ‘marketing’ company tries to join your chapter, don’t allow them to take ‘marketing’ as their category. Force them to choose only one very narrow, specific aspect of their business.” So in your case, you would probably have to “share” clients with your potential competitors, just like you said.

    Here’s why: BNI’s goal is to try to get as many people to join the group as possible, for a few reasons. One, it makes more money for them (think about it: having 40 members at $400/year per chapter is much more lucrative than only 10 members per chapter). Two: they claim that the more people are in a chapter, the higher the number of outside referrals. The example constantly given is this: “the average chapter has 20 members. If a chapter of 20 doubles in size to 40 members, the number of outside referrals doesn’t just double, it triples. Therefore, we want as many people in this chapter as possible, and the only way to do that is make each person choose a narrow category so there’s enough room for everyone.” (Note: there are diminishing returns at some point when growing a chapter—I believe once you start getting to 50 members or so, the number of referrals actually starts falling because the group becomes too crowded and chaotic.)

    Unfortunately, as you’ve mentioned, BNI really pushes hard to “fragment” a business like yours. I’ve seen this taken to an extreme before: I visited a chapter once that had a ridiculous number of insurance agents. Something like six: a “life insurance agent,” a “health insurance agent,” an “auto insurance agent,” a “long term care insurance agent,” a “medicare supplement insurance agent,” et al. It was crazy—most of those insurance agents can sell all of those policies: Auto, P&C, Life, Health, Disability, and so on. But in this particular chapter, they all agreed to only sell “their” category of insurance. I think it’s naïve to pretend that it actually works this way in real life. Even if they do only advertise their particular category of insurance in their BNI chapter, eventually, each agent is going to try to gobble up the rest of the insurance services for their clients. They’ll start offering incentives to bundle policies and things like that. And if the agent doesn’t try to do this, the carrier will. Plus, you have to ask: is the average consumer really going to be best served by having six different policies from six different agents? I don’t think so.

    As I see it, you have three choices:

    1) Don’t join a BNI chapter at all due to its restrictive nature, and instead try to find a “Chamber After Hours” event or some other non-exclusive group where you can still build relationships.

    2) Find a chapter that is willing to let you take an overly-broad category such as “design firm” or “marketing agency.” It may be hard to find one, but you may get lucky—try looking for a small chapter. As I’ve said before, everything is up to the membership committee, so see if you can meet with them and convince them that your business model is a good fit for your chapter and will offer better service to clients this way, rather than splitting things up. Just know that if someone else tries to join the group and has a category conflict, the membership committee may try to get you to whittle down your service offerings to accommodate the new member. You don’t HAVE to do this, but they may ask. They have a special document for this. I can’t recall, but I think it’s called a “member category agreement,” where you’d spell out what you do, and what the other guy does, and agree not to compete.

    3) Don’t join a chapter, but try to visit each chapter in your area up to twice per year. You’ll definitely cause some headache for the corporate folks though, because they HATE it when people do this (they don’t want people to visit who have no intention of joining). But it isn’t against the rules, so you technically can.

    At the end of the day, it’s up to you and what you decide is best for your business. Let me know what you decide!

  • http://www.timwray.ca/ Tim Wray

    Really great post Ron! My only comment, that has been touched upon, is that for some professions its almost impossible to find a chapter with a vacancy. Realtors, mortgage brokers etc (I’m the former) have no choice but to try and build a new chapter. I’m in the process of finding 3-4 people in my area (Vancouver, BC) to help me set-up a new chapter as there is zero possibility of a Realtor vacancy anytime soon (and I believe there is a long waiting list for these positions when they do become available). I don’t really have the time to invest in the set-up process but don’t have a choice as I think that the BNI model works well for my profession.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      I hear you, Tim. It is a challenge. That’s exactly why you’ll find that most people who are in industries like yours (Mortgage Lenders, Realtors, Financial Advisors, etc), IF they’re lucky enough to be in a BNI chapter, stay in those chapters for 5, 10, or 15 years. I hope it works out for you some time!

  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    Gordon, there was a computer services company in my chapter, and while I can’t vouch for the financial success of the business, they certainly got a lot of referrals.

    Computer servicing/repairs is something I would think is a great fit, as a significant chunk of people in BNI chapters work for small businesses, or just work for themselves, and computers have gotten to the point where you pretty much need one to do business these days. So it’s certainly a need for the members, *especially* if you would be offering mobile service. Just make sure you have minimum charges for all your services and trip charges.

    I say do it—good luck!

  • Stephen Webb

    Thank you! I have enjoyed reading the information you have provided. I have just visited a BNI Group in my area. I am small business owner that handles Financial/Insurance business. Some of the pressure points I did see. 3 Officers from the group meet with me after the meeting to get me to join. That was a little awkward. I am concerned about cross referencing business. I could join under supplemental Insurance but I know how to do the rest really well and have great companies I represent. There are financial people in this group. I know you have to join under one profession but does that prohibit me from doing other products, and is this in the business model of the group. Not to mention if I have a relationship with the business owner that he trust does he want someone else getting in his Business if I can help him? 

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Hi Stephen! Those are all great questions. Here’s my take on it: try to the find the group that has the smallest amount of representation in your field.

      You’ve hit on one of BNI’s biggest weaknesses: there is simply an inherent amount of cross-over in business. As I mention in the post, there are chapters with lots of insurance agents and they each have to choose ONLY ONE kind of insurance to sell. It’s up to them to decide whether it works for their business to join or not, but I would recommend finding a pre-core group or starting your own chapter rather than having to sign an agreement saying you won’t represent certain parts of your business. …but that’s just me. It’s up to you, ultimately.

      If you do get a referral from BNI, and the customer asks you about other services you may offer (i.e. if you get a referral that is a business owner who needs liability insurance, and you can also offer him auto insurance), you *are* allowed to offer these services outside the group. You just can’t advertise this in the group.

      Hope that helps!

  • valkyriebiker

    Hi, I am an IT consultant in my chapter in South Florida.  BNI is a terrific source of referrals.  Some 80% of my business comes from BNI and the knock-on referral chain.

    I’ve seen a nearly 100x ROI on my BNI membership.  No other form of marketing even comes close.  I’ve been in BNI for five years now and will be VP of my chapter this year.

    We have 26 members with very little turnover.

    Everything Ron said is spot-on and has been my observation as well.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Thanks for the feedback! That’s awesome to know that someone else had a great experience and had awesome ROI as well. Good for you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pitt.cho Pitt Cho

    Hi Ron:

    I sell Subaru cars for living, our brand has the best AWD in the market. I was invited to join a chapter.

    1) Do you think Car sales would be a good profession in BNI?

    I am concerning about the time I spend and the money I can gain in return. Buying a car will cost $20,000+, will it be harder than selling insurance, like you said $800/ yr.

    2) Have you ever seen a chapter with more than one car salesperson? Lets say they sell different thing: Cars, trucks, vans, or different brands, Import or domestic?

    Please give me some advice. Thanks, PC

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Hi PC! Great question.

      Most chapters do have a Car Salesman or, more popularly, an Auto Broker. Auto Brokers are really the best fit because they can offer a much wider selection than just one or two brands. The problem with Car Sales can be if you’re locked in to being able to sell only one or two brands of cars.

      In a similar situation, we had a mechanic in my chapter who owned a Toyota/Lexus repair facility, but he realized that he couldn’t just specialize in that in the BNI chapter, so he offers repairs and service for just about any make and model in hid BNI chapter (except for German imports). I think, that he’s gotten more referrals for Dodges and GMs than anything else, actually.

      So ultimately, it’s up to you, your ability to sell what the chapter members want, and their willingness to be flexible if you don’t sell exactly what they want.

      But yes, I do think auto sales is a vital addition to any BNI Chapter—unlike insurance sales, I don’t think most people require that much trust before making a purchasing decision about a car, because they generally only see a car salesman one time: when they buy the car. Also, people make changes in their transportations situation much more frequently than they do with financial products. You’ll probably find that people buy/lease/sell cars far more often in the span of a year than you might expect. Plus, you’ve got to ask yourself: how many cars do you need to sell in order to pay for you membership? If I had to guess, at around $20k (let’s say, on average) per sale, probably one one or two per year.

      Finally, to answer your second question, no; I’ve never seen multiple car salesmen in a BNI chapter. There may be a situation where that happens, but it would be rare. More likely would be a car salesman and a car mechanic in the same chapter. That happens more often.

      I hope that helps! Go join one!

  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for commenting! You will probably still feel the pressure to bring in outside referrals even without a requirement, as you’ve mentioned. …and I do think that it will be a challenge to try to bring in outside referrals if your network isn’t local.

    Having said that, here are two ways to be a helpful member even though you may not have a lot of outside referrals:

    1) Show the membership committee that you’re committed to helping the chapter in other ways. You could focus on getting a leadership role that’s crucial to the chapter’s success yet has a minimal time commitment, such as Educational Coordinator, Secretary/Treasurer, Visitor Host, or Librarian.

    2) Focus on inside referrals (i.e. when you refer yourself or someone in your immediate family to a chapter member). I was able to do lots of this in my chapter. As an example, I purchased a home while I was a member. Guess how many referrals that generated? Here’s the breakdown: 1) the Realtor helped me buy the house, 2) the home inspector inspected the home, 3) the mortgage lender underwrote my mortgage, 4) the insurance agent wrote my new homeowners insurance policy, 5) the roofer replaced the roof, 6) the landscaper helped me fix some issues with the sprinklers, 7) the flooring company replaced all the carpet and put a new wood floor in the kitchen, and 8) the accountant amended my taxes for the year to get in on the first-time home buyer tax credit. That’s eight referrals! And some of them ended up in thousands of dollars in closed business.

    I also hired an arborist to chop down a big tree in the backyard, had a chimney sweep inspect the fireplace, and had an HVAC company repair the furnace, though none of those professions were represented in my group at the time. So I *could* have had 11 referrals in total.

    To answer your last question, I did start networking outside my BNI chapter, but that really didn’t affect my referrals in an appreciable way. My network at the time was almost exclusively through my BNI chapter, so it was always a challenge for me the entire time to bring in outside referrals. But I did the two things I mention above, where I was the chapter Vice President (which is a big time commitment, by the way), and passed a lot of inside referrals.

    If you work on those, I’m sure your membership committee will see that and they’ll want to keep you forever! So go for it, and don’t worry about the numbers. Let me know how it goes!

  • RonLum

    HI Ron S, what’s a good way to price services when other BNI members want your services? I don’t want to be too expensive because they might not refer me later. I don’t want to be too cheap, because then when they do refer me, they’ll mentioned “this guy is cheap!” I don’t want to price out anyone since BNI has a lot of small business owners, who are usually very cautious about where they put their money. Any input would be appreciated. Thanks.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Hi Ron, great question, and great name! ;)

      I have a few thoughts on this. My immediate thought is this: DON’T undervalue your services! Don’t ever let people think of you as “cheap.” This is the kiss of death. IMHO, you want people to think of you as “fairly” or “moderately” priced. They will value you and your time much more. I would take being thought of as expensive any day over being thought of as cheap!

      It took me a while to figure out how to make money in my BNI chapter. What I learned was that most BNI members (at least in Colorado Springs) work for super-tiny businesses with very small marketing budgets (or no budget at all). I think by its very nature, BNI attracts small mom-and-pop shops who don’t understand the Internet, or marketing, or don’t see the value… which can be insanely frustrating for people like you and me who make a living doing these things! Example: I would sometimes meet with companies who spend $3,000+/mo on phone book ads, but refused to spend $2,000 as a one-time cost for a website because they didn’t see the need for it. THAT was my biggest challenge. I think that’s mostly due to the city I live in though—hopefully things in Hawaii are better.

      I finally found two very specific ways to make money in my chapter. Here they are:

      First, I created a “one page website” package (for example, check out http://www.semperfihandyman.com). Instead of charging for a custom website, a detailed content strategy and marketing plan, I would just build one very simple web page (with a contact form) for a much smaller fee. This worked for several reasons: A) it helped me “win” people as clients, and whenever you can turn someone into a client, even for a very small amount, it’s actually a major win because they’re paying you money, and they will start to think of you as “their web guy” so you build credibility and authority in their eyes. B) If and when they ever do come up with a bigger budget—you’re the first one they’ll call. C) If you start to stack up enough of these little tiny websites, you can actually make some serious money because you can crank them out much quicker than a full-blown website. If you get fast at them, you can build in a high profit margin even if the ticket price is small. D) Recurring fees! Even if you only build a one-page site, you charge for hosting, and if you build up enough hosting clients, you can get a steady revenue stream (albeit small) and that really helps as well.

      Second, I delved into training, education and consulting. By the time I left my BNI chapter, around 25-30% of my income came from hourly consulting. I started marketing myself as a consultant who could meet with businesses and help them figure out their challenges with marketing or trying to understand the internet, or I’d create social media accounts, or I’d hook their iOS devices into their corporate networks (usually running MS Exchange), or I’d do website audits, and things like that. Since I had a lot of these skills available, and not just “web design,” per se—it was a huge boon for me. Hourly consulting is a genius way for making quick cash too: just bill people ON the visit, like any other serviceman does (say, a plumber, or someone like that). If you spend three hours at their office, print them an invoice right there, AT their office, and get a check from them that same day. This helped me pay my grocery bills for MANY months. No waiting for payments!

      I don’t know what your exact skillset is, but if you can either make small websites or supplement your web design with ancillary services like social media and training and things like that, you’ll probably do pretty well.

      So that’s what I ended up doing, anyway. Hopefully that helps! good luck!

      • Jack

        Thanks Ron for a tip !!
        I’m web designer and web consultant as well. I will try your aproach to the chamber :)

        • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

          I’m glad it helped, Jack! The Chamber can be a great resource. :)

  • Cheryl Kessler Katz

    So what if you want to join a networking group but not yet full time business. What are groups that are recommended during the growing phase please?

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Cheryl: probably your local Chamber of Commerce can be the most help in that case. They have events from time to time usually called something like “Business After Hours” which can be a great place for networking while you’re growing your business, and there’s no requirement that your business be a full-time thing. Also, you could start your own group! Just reserve a room at a local restaurant (such as Panera Bread) and maybe get a Meetup group going. That’s another great way I’ve seen, particularly if you have a specific niche that you work in. Example: there are local Real Estate Meetup groups here in town all over the city where people from various industries related to Real Estate get together to talk shop. Good luck!

      • Cheryl Kessler Katz

        Thanks Ron!

  • Chris Aguilar

    Hello Ron-
    Is one of the chapters’ requirements having an actual business license? I am a longtime videographer, and have recently decided to do full time. With a license in the near future, is it still possible to utilize BNI?
    Thanks in advance!
    Great Info!!!

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Chris, believe it or not there’s no strict requirement that you be licensed per se. However, when you fill out your application it will ask you to certify in writing that you have all the appropriate licenses and credentials for your trade. But ultimately it’s up to the membership committee to decide. I don’t know if videography requires a license to perform in your location, but I can’t imagine that it would be required to join BNI unless you’re legally required to have one. However, it could certainly make you look good if they’re considering you and a competitor and only you have a license. Good luck!

      • Puja

        Hi Ron, So glad I came across this info. What a helpful blog post.

        I just started as a home based travel agency in Toronto, I’m on the fence whether to join my local, I am supposed to attend a meeting next week. Have you seen any travel agency in any of the chapters you worked with, do you think it is a service that could profit in a BNI group setting?

        My concern is also with the referral requirements. At a time I am trying to market and network my business, I’m concerned I will be stressing to get referrals for co members. Of course I realize it is a system of give and take, and totally understand why those requirements are in place, just wondering if it is worth it for a small travel agency like myself who doesn’t have a large network base to start off with.

        Also, lastly wondering what the structure of the meetings are every week?

        Puja

        • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

          Hi Puja, the best way to see how a meeting is run is to just visit one! As I mention above, the culture of each chapter is slightly different but the agenda and basic structure is the same in every meeting, so even if you don’t like the chapter you visit, you’ll get a feel for how the meetings are.

          To answer your question about referrals, I recommend just meeting with the membership committee of the chapter before joining and telling them about your fears. They should be understanding, and, in my opinion, reassure you that they still want good members and value quality over quantity. But as I said in the post, some chapters do have a referral requirement and expect you to produce a certain number, so watch out for that.

          Finally, you asked if I’ve seen a travel agency in a chapter before and the answer is yes! Not very many, but they’re there. For example, I had a meeting last Friday with a travel agent who’s been in a BNI chapter for about six years. It’s great!

          Good luck!

  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    Absolutely. If you can actually explain what you do in a way that people can understand, it could be a great fit. The trouble for you is going to be trying to help people send you referrals.

    For example: honestly, how does someone *inoffensively* refer a friend to a psychotherapist? It’s going to be tough, because nobody is going to want to run out and tell their friends “Hey, I found a psychotherapist that you need to talk to!” because it seems inherently offensive to suggest to someone that they might need therapy.

    Want a free hint? Go find a Mary Kay rep or an Arbonne gal that’s in a BNI chapter and ask her how she solicit business for beauty products that treat disorders like Rosacea. How do they get people to refer business to them? I don’t know, but if they’re in BNI, they know how—and you can go ask them their secret. Because, again, their big challenge is that nobody in their chapter is going to want to tell people “Hey! You clearly have bad rosacea—I know a gal who can sell you stuff to clear that up.” So whatever approach these ladies are using so sell their products is probably something you can duplicate. Just visit http://www.bni.com and see if you can find anyone in your area that sells these kinds of products, then contact one of them and tell her you’re interested in joining BNI and want to buy her lunch and ask a few questions.

    Give it a shot!

  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    Hi Warren, that’s great! I’m glad you got to visit a chapter. Did you have a good experience? If so, join it! :) I honestly don’t know the differences in policies for different countries, and I’m sure it varies based on local laws. If you check out http://www.bni.com.au, they should be able to point you in the right direction.

    To answer your question about being a good fit, yes. Photographers can do really well in a BNI chapter *IF* they’re careful to price themselves well and not discount their rates. You might feel obligated to if the other members are from tiny one-man shops, or they may ask for discounts or tell you you’re too expensive.

    I’ve seen photographers get burnt out really quickly in BNI chapters before because they aren’t able to convince people that photography is worth the money. If you go in and tell people “I charge $2,500 per shoot” and never actually explain why it’s worth the money, they may just think you’re overpriced because they’ll compare you to their niece who’s taking a photography class who would love to do a photo shoot for almost nothing just to get the experience.

    So in all likelihood, you will not be competing against other photographers for your fellow members’ business—you’ll be competing with people who “have a nice camera” or the Wal-Mart photo studio that only charges $4.88 for a sitting. That will be your job: convince them of the value! Good luck!

  • Barry Nicholson

    Thanks for the helpful article, Ron. You’ve definitely given me food for thought before joining BNI. I’m mainly a direct response copywriter, and my clients are usually marketing gurus who are not local. We moved to Sarasota about 4 years ago, but since my wife and I both work from home we find that we rarely get out of the house. Part of my desire to join a group is to get both of us out there and meet businesspeople in our community.

    Since our normal clients are marketing gurus, most of the marketing work we do is fairly advanced. So when I’m in a local setting, I find that people are definitely very interested in what I have to say, but can’t afford to hire me to write their copy or setup their campaigns. The exceptions are medium-sized companies, or professionals (lawyers, dentists, etc) with larger transaction values.

    My company is setup as a marketing agency, in that we can do “marketing makeovers” and do everything from web design, graphics, copywriting, social media, etc. But from other comments, you said that was frowned on.

    Perhaps I should stick with being a copywriter/marketing consultant? I enjoy consulting with small & medium-sized businesses and showing them how they can improve conversions with better copy, close more back-end sales with better follow-up, marketing automation, etc.

    I’m also concerned about the referrals aspect. Since we don’t know a lot of people locally, it’s going to be difficult for us to bring referrals to the group.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Barry, I hear you on all points. My quick thoughts are you might try joining a Rotary Club or something else that has a networking aspect to it, without any pressure to bring in referrals and without being unable to market all your services. Because I do think you will be pressured to limit yourself to only ONE category, which you may be able to live with, but if you combine that with the need to bring qualified referrals, it might not be a good environment for you.

      So you could try a Rotary, or maybe a Chamber Business After Hours monthly event or something like that. You get all the social interaction and none of the pressure. Good luck!

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  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    That’s great, David! I’m glad you found it helpful. I’ve tried to be as unbiased as possible, and since I’ve “been there; done that,” I think I can give a truly honest assessment.

    That’s a very interesting idea—repeating each person’s tag line. I’ve definitely never heard that before! Just goes to show you how each chapter has it’s own feel and culture.

    Good luck and I hope it all works out for you!

  • jbro

    Outstanding summary and information. I was just reading this before heading out to an intro meeting for a BNI Chapter and while it sounds great for networking, your article made me realize that sadly, it does not work for me and there was no reason to attend my intro meeting this morning.

    Although my business is in Miami, I spend a few months each summer in Europe working remotely from our home there and the strict attendance policy would obviously be a deal breaker. Truth is, I send a ton of referrals out each year and would likely be one of the largest referring partners for many of the members of the specific group I was interested in. Unfortunately, there is no way I could commit to the weekly meetings that I know I will miss for nearly 3 months in a row even though during those three months I would certainly be referring business out. It’s sad because I know my participation in the group would be greatly valued, but there is no way to make the attendance policy work for me.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Yep, sorry to hear that. The only solution I can think of is for you to send one of your employees if you have one… but again, the rules state that you’d have to send a full-time employe (no part time employees allowed) so if you don’t have one, you’ll want to find a group that’s different than BNI. Good luck!

  • jeremy

    A nicely structured article with a fair assessment of both the pros and cons. I’ve been in BNI for 11 years now and people still think its a get rich quick scheme. You have put both sides objectively. Nicely done.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Thanks for the feedback, Jeremy!

  • http://www.campcreativedesign.com/ Cam Pietralunga

    Wow! What a great article. Thanks for posting this. I was considering a local chapter but didn’t really know how it works. Now I’m sure it won’t work for me. So I appreciate you saving me the time to visit the group.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Thanks, Cam! I’m sorry BNI isn’t going to work out for you. Good luck on your endeavors!

  • Sonj

    Hi Ron,
    Great info here. I am debating if this is a good fit for me or not. I am a little concerned about the time commitment. I am a graphic designer who works full time for a corporate office and I do some freelance on the side. I would join to network my freelancing but concerned that my full-time job would get in the way if the pressure came down to choosing BNI over my fulltime job. At the end of the day, this would always have to come 2nd, is BNI okay with that?

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Hi Sonj, yeah, BNI wouldn’t be a good fit, if I’m understanding your situation. According to the official rules, you wouldn’t qualify since technically your full-time job is serving your employer, not clients, which means you wouldn’t have time for one-to-ones, and things like that. You might try a Chamber After Hours event, or maybe some other local Meetup Group to build your network.

  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    Michelle, I’m glad you found it helpful! You ask great questions! Here are my thoughts:

    1) Referrals work like this: you are handed a “referral slip” at the meeting and the member giving you a referral will hand you either a yellow slip or a red slip depending on whether it’s an “inside referral” or an “outside referral.”

    An inside referral means either the person handing you the slip wants to hire you, or a close family member does. Example: the plumber in your group wants to send his wife to your salon. An outside referral is when somebody refers you to a person or business they’re not connected with. Example: your plumber refers you to his wife’s boss, who’s been looking for a new salon.

    BNI really likes outside referrals more than inside referrals, and so do the members. Here’s why: there’s only so many times you can cut the hair of the 20-30 members in your chapter. However, you have exponentially higher opportunities to get business from the people that your chapter members know. That’s the power of BNI.

    So, after you receive a referral slip, you need to contact the referral right away. (It’s part of the “BNI Pledge” which you agree to abide by when becoming a member). This means you contact them right away and say something like “Hi there Joan, Bob gave me your number and said you might be interested in my services. How can I help you?”

    A really good referral that’s sent your way by a really good referrer will go like this: the Realtor stands up during the “I Have” portion of the meeting and says “Michelle, I have an outside referral for you. My next door neighbor, Carol, is looking for a good stylist, and I recommended you and she’s very excited and will be calling you for a cut and curl this week.” These referrals are gold, and the people who give referrals this way are VERY valuable.

    This is why I like BNI. BNI is NOT a “leads group” where people say “Hey, Michelle, here’s a business card for a lady I met yesterday. She might be interested in your services or she might not.” That’s bogus, and it’s a total waste of time, though there are groups that run this way. BNI wants people only to pass “qualified referrals,” meaning the person passing the referrals 1) already knows the person they’re referring to you, 2) they’ve already mentioned you and what you do to the person in question, and (most importantly, 3) that person has expressed interest in what you offer. A true referral will never say “How did you get my number?” or “What was your name again?” because they’re already expecting your call.

    2) I would say that with your geographic restrictions, you have two choices. First, you join the one that’s 25 miles away and try to think of ways to make it worthwhile for the chapter members to come see you. Especially if you can offer them some sort of discount or service that they can’t get locally. Or, you can ask them to refer people to you that live in the area near your shop. The other choice, would be to start your own chapter in your area! This would probably be the better option, but it’s a much longer-term investment. You’d have to contact BNI and ask them to look into forming a “pre-core” group in your area, and they’ll hook you up with people from other professions who want to be a part of a new chapter as well, and you can go about it that way. The benefit is, it will be in your area. The challenge is that it’s really hard to start a new chapter and it takes several months to get one off the ground, and you have to be so focused on building the chapter that you really don’t see many referrals coming through because it’s all about chapter growth until you can reach a minimum number of people in order to “graduate” from a pre-core chapter to a full-fledged chapter.

    I hope that’s helpful.

  • Kiran

    Hi Ron, today I attended a BNI Chapter. I felt it’s good to get new leads, relationships etc… I’m running an advertisement agency. Should I join or not? Please suggest.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Hi Kiran, If you’re a running a small business and have the time to devote to passing qualified referrals, building long-term relationships, and coming every week, yes, I think it can be a huge asset for you to join.

  • Wendy Campbell

    Great article Ron. I went on a search for information about BNI groups and didn’t expect to come across your blog. But, I glad I did, very informative. I appreciate you taking the time!

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      I’m glad it helped, Wendy!

  • Irwin Dominguez

    Hi Ron,

    Thank you so much for posting this very informative article and also for replying to everyone’s questions with a very thorough reply.

    I have a question about how to position myself in a BNI meeting.

    It appears we have similar backgrounds, I offer “web design” that focuses on lead generation (autoresponder, etc) and also offer other services (PPC, SMM) depending on the client’s needs.

    So I’m not just a “web designer” or a “marketing consultant”, I’m kind of “both” in the eyes of businesses, anyways.

    Based on your personal experience, what do you think I should do and how should I position myself?

    Thanks Ron – I’m looking forward to reading your reply.
    Irwin

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Irwin, I totally understand. Yep, this was quite similar to my situation. Ultimately, here’s the quickest answer: find out who you might compete with in the group and talk to them and see if there’s a way to collaborate. If so, you can work with them as a “Power Partner,” which is awesome. Then make sure that you write down EVERYTHING you want to do for your category in your membership application—that’s your only shot at getting a legally binding document that states what your category is. So for me, I think I wrote something like “Website Development, Design, & Hosting” so I wouldn’t get pigeonholed as “just” the web developer or “just” the web designer. And yes, they did try to do that to me after the fact, by the way. A graphic designer came in and he wanted to do web design as well, but I talked to the membership committee to make sure that he would *only* do print design so there was no conflict. It worked out perfectly fine, and we were able to collaborate, but I needed to be really careful about this before he joined.

      All that to say, I’m not sure exactly how you want to categorize yourself (or how many areas your membership committee will let you choose), but make sure it’s broad enough to do what you want to do.

      I hope that helps!

      • Irwin Dominguez

        Ron,

        Thanks so much for your input.

        I asked a BNI near me if I can be the designated web designer and web marketer for the chapter and I was told to apply as a “web development/ seo” member. I will get a better idea if that covers web design and web marketing for the group.

        Your blog has been very helpful. Thanks again and I’ll keep you/ everyone else posted n what happens with me.

        • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

          Irwin, I’m glad you found it helpful. Good luck!

  • Trevor Johnson

    I enjoyed that and it chimes with my own experiences but crucially you don’t say why you left, which is surely a key point.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Hi Trevor, I think I do briefly mention it in the post, but I left because I changed jobs and employers so I no longer had a need to represent a business looking for referrals (I went from running my own web design business to taking a job at an international software company with no local clients). Thanks for asking—that’s a good point.

      • Trevor Johnson

        Ah sorry, I missed that. Thanks for filling me in!

  • http://www.cjphysicaltherapy.com Carrie

    Thank you so much for this post! This is exactly what I needed to read. I just visited a BNI chapter this morning and left with a warm, fuzzy feeling and think it would be really good for me. However, when I mentioned my excitement over the group to someone else – they said “It’s a cult, stay away”. Which lead me to my google search and your post. I just relocated to my area and am starting from scratch business-wise. The most important thing I need right now is networking and referrals. And there happens to be an open spot for my profession. As only a visitor this morning, I walked away with 4 of my own meetings: one potential client, two potential referral sources, and one that might be my future office space! I’m pretty pleased about that. I didn’t realize all of the extra work involved – which you clearly highlighted in your post – so thank you for that. It is definitely something to consider. But at the very least, I feel the speaking in front of a group every week, and the practice of engaging different people and garnering referrals every week is something I need a lot of practice with. I was lucky enough to not have to market or network in my previous city because I had enough clients to always keep me busy. I think joining for at least 1 year is worth my while. This is also a small town where word of mouth and “who you know” is key to your business.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Carrie! I know what you mean though about the “cult” thing… especially when they stand up and all recite the “BNI Pledge”… that makes it feel like church. Overall though, I think it is worth it. Thanks for commenting!

  • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

    Hi JoAnne, great question. It’s something like $600/year. The renewal fees are less (if I recall, maybe $50-100 less because you don’t have to pay the initiation fee or whatever they call it). The fees go to cover things such as paying the local owners (believe it or not, BNI is a franchise with local owners that buy and run different areas), paying BNI corporate (it’s a global company), and covers things like marketing collateral, training materials, etc.

    There are also other fees as well: if you meet in a meeting space that is rented, you’ll have to pay for that, usually weekly. At the chapter I was in, we paid $12.50/week on top of our dues, to cover breakfast and the cost of renting the room.

    I hope that helps!

  • Vanessa

    This was very informative. I am on the fence about joining and this helps me get a better perspective. I own my own business, have a son who plays sports and Im on the board for another large organization. The time commitment is a major factor for me. Knowing this…along with the costs, I may have to reconsider. But I will still visit my local chapter before I make a final decision. Thanks for sharing Ron!

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Great, Vanessa! Good luck, and I hope it either works out for you or you find something else. :)

  • http://visuex.com/ Michael Tunnell

    You make many good points and I would agree that a one year commitment could help a lot of people, it certainly did for me. Though, I would disagree that with BNI’s practices being a good structure. Rules are needed and people need to be informed that breaking these rules will not be tolerated but BNI’s rules are a bit much. You can get kicked out for not having enough referrals and there are some industries where the member isn’t in a position to meet the requirement.

    My biggest issue with BNI is that BNI is useless after one year. I don’t mean for the member specifically but for the entire group itself. The group pays BNI a lot of money for essentially nothing after the first year. BNI doesn’t own the concept of the structure because the structure is not patentable or copyrightable so a group could pay for one year to get the structure and then move on without BNI. I would argue that is what they should do because BNI charges an absurd amount of money and after the first year they provide nothing else of value.

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Interesting thoughts, Michael. I’m sympathetic towards some of your points, and I tried to mention that I’m not entirely sold on BNI’s methods being “the right way.” For example, yes, I agree that the rules are very, very strict. Far more strict than just about any other business organization that I know of.

      Having said that, why would the group lose its value at an arbitrary mark such as one year? BNI still does a lot after the first year, such as still supplying the forms, structure, programs, marketing materials, and training (Leadership Training and Membership Success Program) even after the one year mark, so I’m not sure why those things stop being valuable.

      I would actually disagree in one respect: I think the value of BNI can really come after the first year, especially for a new chapter, since it takes about a year for a group to really get to understand how it all works, and find their own “chemistry” and identity as a group. It takes me at least a year to get to really know someone in business well anyway, and I’ve found that most of the rewarding referrals I’ve gotten came later in a relationship (whether in or out of BNI).

      Another quick example: I’m a part of a Toastmasters club here in town, and it’s the oldest continually-running toastmasters clubs in Colorado Springs—it’s been meeting every week for 38 years. So the value of us remaining an official toastmasters club is clearly still there, nearly 40 years later!

      My final thought: technically, you could just take everything you’ve learned form BNI and try to replicate it, but there are a few reasons why I don’t think this is a good idea. #1, you lose access to BNI’s network. For example, most of the new members our chapter got found us through BNI’s website. This is a huge asset, and worth paying for, since it would be very hard to have the kind of reach BNI has without BNI. #2, there are many chapters that try to do exactly what you’re saying, where they duplicate the model but leave BNI. I don’t recall the statistics, but our local BNI representatives shared with us the stats that show that an enormous amount of chapters who do that fail within a year, and another large percentage call BNI and ask if they can come back. Similar to how an employee can quit his job for an employer and start his own business… he certainly CAN, but the failure rate is very high and it’s often much, much harder than he expects. (I know—I’ve started my own business before… it’s a lot less glamorous than people think).

      Good thoughts!

      • http://visuex.com/ Michael Tunnell

        > “BNI still does a lot after the first year, such as still supplying the
        forms, structure, programs, marketing materials, and training”

        Forms can be made by anyone with a printer, nothing special worth a minimum of $6,570 (group of the minimum 18 paying a minimum of $365)

        Structure can be continued, the structure itself can not be patented as slight tweaks such as length of time or order makes the structure not exactly the same. Instead of Member Minute make it 80 seconds, so on. The structure is already set and can be continue without much effort.

        Programs? like what? The only other program I can think of that BNI provides is the training and I will address that in a bit.

        Marketing Materials can easily be replaced with custom materials or none at all considering it is up to the members to actually convince them of joining basically always.

        Training can be done by anyone in the group, in fact most people already know everything in the training. I learned nothing of real value in the training and I am not even a salesperson, I hate sales yet I already knew everything they explained…plus they don’t even understand the actual definitions of the words “tangible” and “intangible” which is just sad.

        None of the above justifies the $6,570 that the group has to pay annually…and taking into account that the $6,570 doesn’t cover any of the venue costs, meal costs, group dues such as quarterly dues that some groups request it just makes the BNI system a ripoff for the group.

        > “I think the value of BNI can really come after the first year,
        especially for a new chapter, since it takes about a year for a group to really get to understand how it all works, and find their own “chemistry” and identity as a group.”

        The group wouldn’t change it would just drop the BNI name…nothing has to change drastically at all and the group would still succeed because all of what you said could still be utilized.

        > “I’m a part of a Toastmasters club here in town, and it’s the oldest continually-running toastmasters clubs in Colorado Springs—it’s been meeting every week for 38 years. So the value of us remaining an official toastmasters club is clearly still there, nearly 40 years later!”

        I don’t have a problem with Toastmasters as their fees are reasonable. $92 for the first year and $72 every year after. That is completely reasonable and thus the name doesn’t hurt the group at all.

        Lets use the same metric of 18 members for Toastmasters, the total cost for the first year is $1,781 (18 x $92 [including app fee] + $125 Charter Fee) vs BNI’s $8,370 (18 x $365 [minimum] + 18 x $100 app fee).

        The second year of Toastmasters costs $1,296 vs BNI’s $6,570.

        These differences make the comparison not even remotely applicable. Toastmasters fees are reasonable to the chapter and reasonable to the members thus there is no issue with them and using their name. BNI on the other hand charges an astronomical rate for essentially nothing. (arguably something on the first year but not $8,370 worht)

        > “#1, you lose access to BNI’s network. For example, most of the new members our chapter got found us through BNI’s website. This is a huge asset, and worth paying for, since it would be very hard to have the kind of reach BNI has without BNI.”

        This is debatable as to whether it is useful or not because in my area BNI’s name was completely useless to my chapter and we had to explain it entirely to everyone who showed up. Different demographic can cause different situations but for my area it was completely useless.

        > “#2, there are many chapters that try to do exactly what you’re saying, where they duplicate the model but leave BNI. I don’t recall the statistics, but our local BNI representatives shared with us the stats that show that an enormous amount of chapters who do that fail within a year, and another large percentage call BNI and ask if they can come back.”

        I don’t want to be a jerk about this one but it might be unavoidable. Call me cynical if you want but please forgive my inability to put value to “BNI representatives” providing “statistics” that make them look good and claim that groups “fail within a year” without BNI. I would never trust the source if the source has a vested interest in the statistics providing answers one way or the other.

        • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

          Two of the programs I was referring to are the Visitors Day, and the Ambassador Program. I found the Ambassador Program to be particularly valuable myself.

          If you think that you “already know everything” that BNI teaches in Leadership Training, MSP, you’re certainly the first I’ve met. I’ve worked with professional sales people who have spent 20 or 30 years in business who found both of them quite valuable either in introducing them to new concepts, or reinforcing things they in theory should “know” but either don’t know, or don’t follow through on.

          I’ve seen with my own eyes groups that try to replicate the BNI model, and I’ll you this—much more happens than simply “dropping the BNI name.” They usually lose their way, for myriad reasons. One big reason is the support that BNI offers with their local directors. Especially when a chapter starts to fail. They have a “rescue” program where a director is assigned to a chapter to try to revive it if it’s not doing well, and that’s something you don’t pay anything extra for. If you hit a rough patch and have no support other than the members themselves, you’re on your own, and the success of the group is dependent on the tenacity of the leadership to identify the issues and work through it. Some clubs can probably do this, while others can’t.

          It sounds like your main beef is that “it’s too expensive,” which is your right to claim. However, even if that is the case, the proof in the pudding is the fact that many people do, in fact, pay the money, join, and find much success, in spite of the cost. So the only legitimate claim I see in this case is that it’s too expensive… for you.

          It’s also your right not to join. i.e. if you don’t see the value, don’t join. I saw the value, as I said, because I made over 75% of my annual income through being a BNI member. However, I have no affiliation with BNI anymore and certainly have no financial impetus to telling people to join BNI—it’s just my own personal experience that I want to share with others.

          And you can say that BNI’s own statistics are biased. However, I’ve seen it myself. That’s my point. I’ve seen many, many groups that try to replicate the BNI model and not charge for membership, or charge less, and every club I’ve seen try to do that has failed. I don’t think it’s because there’s a magical amount of money that needs to be charged—it’s just that they’re making clones of a successful model. The business model BNI has is more than the sum of its parts, and it takes much more than some printed forms, and a weekly meeting to create a revenue generating club.

  • http://evrex.com keith mcvey

    Hey Ron,
    Just went to my first meeting this morning and was very impressed! Everything you stated about what to look for in a good chapter was there. Very friendly, about 35-40 members, not too pushy. I’m a sales representative for a small business in the area who offers printers, copiers, scanners, computers and other office equipment. I’m the only person in the chapter in this category/industry. My boss doesn’t think its a good idea and looks like I’ll be paying out of pocket for membership if I join. I was wondering what you think about this? I want to join and think it could do wonders for meeting people, business, etc. I think investing this much time to something obviously will pay off eventually. I also want to thank you for the great report above… it’s really well put together and answers most questions!

    • http://www.ronstauffer.com/ Ron Stauffer

      Hi Keith, great! I’m glad you found my post helpful, and I’m glad you found the BNI meeting worthwhile! To answer your question, I think the fastest way to get your boss to take an interest is to see if you can find someone else in your industry that’s in another chapter and take him/her out to lunch or at least give them a call and ask if they’ve found their membership to be worthwhile. If you can get a real live testimonial from someone else in the industry, that speaks volumes. If you end up having to pay for your own membership, it could still be worth it if you’re a commissioned salesman and can make more money through the new relationships you make in BNI. I think it will pay off, but it’s all about how much time you put into it. For me, it was a great investment. I hope it works out for you!