Networking groups: is BNI right for my business?

Networking groups: is BNI right for my business?

James Laurence Wood

If you’re moving from the world of employment into freelancing, it quickly becomes very clear that you’ll have to spend a lot more time that you’re used to chasing new business. And if you’re working on your own, it can feel isolating and leave you unsure where to go next.

Networking groups are all over the place. They give you the chance to meet other business folk, give your pitch and make connections. You don’t normally do a lot of direct selling to the people in the room, but build a good relationship with them and they may well start recommending you to their clients.

BNI is one of the most successful networking groups in the world. It’s a global franchise system, with local chapters of a few dozen members passing referrals to each other to generate business. It’s extremely successful, with members having passed over $15 billion of work to each other. It’s also one of the strictest, most rule-bound networking groups out there. So is it right for you and your freelance business?

I asked two of our members about their experiences with BNI.

Rachel - Graphic Designer

I left my job on the 28th March 2018 after working for them for 20 years. I attended my first BNI networking meeting on the following day, the 29th March and sat there very early in the morning wondering what I had actually done, and literally hit the ground running.  It was a shock to the system and for several weeks I wondered whether BNI was right for me. I had never done any networking before, so everything was alien. I thought long and hard about BNI and was unsure if I would be able to get and give referrals as was required and I realised it was a big commitment to bring visitors and get subs to stand in for me.

I was made to feel very welcome by everyone. I grabbed a coffee and started to mingle with the others. A mixed bunch of people, all from different walks of life and different professions from a web designer, photographer, builder, electrician, window fitter to mortgage advisor, financial people to a printer and a gardener and many more besides. There were 40+ businesses represented within the room.

Everyone was seated at round tables, with coffee and juice in hand ready for the actual meeting to begin. There were short, 60 second presentations from everyone educating the room about their business. I stood up and mumbled something, but honestly can’t remember what I said. I was very nervous and I didn’t like public speaking then and still don’t now. There were two other people joining BNI that first morning along with me, so I wasn’t on my own at least.

After a few weeks I started to settle into the swing of things. I started having meetings with others from the group,  building relationships and contacts. I was enjoying meeting lots of different people, some of whom I would never have met through normal circles. The help and information and the encouragement that I received was invaluable. People want you to succeed and offer any help and support they can. It is also a way of you helping others and this also gives you a sense of achievement.

I had a mentor from BNI, who helped me through the first few weeks. Guiding me through and telling what to do and what was expected etc. I would be asked to bring in referrals and receive them from the others in the group and hopefully this would generate work for each other. At times during this process, I felt I was out of my depth and pushing myself to deal with things that were out of my comfort zone,  but ultimately I survived.

BNI has been an invaluable asset to me and I don’t think I would be where I am now had I not joined. The whole process over the last 12 months has been totally positive. I hoped that BNI would help with my confidence and I think it has in some small part. I feel comfortable and part of a much bigger team, with each member on the look out for potential business for others within the group. They have not only been great business partners, but many have become friends too.

Have had some lovely testimonials and feedback and customers keep coming back time after time, which is a great achievement. After one year in business and one year at BNI I have just rejoined for another year. After the first year I calculated that 70% of the business had come via BNI. I had no network when I first started freelancing, but have built this up with the help of BNI.

BNI has been very positive thing for me, but you have to be committed and put effort into it for it to work for you. Visit a few times to different BNI groups and see which fits the best.

Dan - Web Developer

I spend just over eight months with BNI, and let me start by saying I think it’s a good system for certain types of business. A very very good system for a couple of types of business. Just not a good one for mine.

What was good for me

  • Having to stand up and talk to the room for 60 seconds each week helped me build my personal confidence talking about my business and think about different ways to present my USPs to customers.
  • The group was friendly and most of the people were welcoming and helpful. It was nice to have a group of business people to meet and talk with every week, since most of my actual work is done remotely.
  • It was a great testing ground for new product / service ideas. I could talk about it and get instant feedback from my target audience. People were honest and encouraging.

What was bad for me

  • It takes up a huge amount of time. Two hours a week for the meeting (a lot of which is spent listening to the same BNI marketing script over and over again), two hours for the recommended two 1:1 meetings a week. Training courses (which you have to drive to). Online training. Power Team meetings. Chapter training. Social events (optional, but strongly encouraged). Before you know it you’re spending over a day a week on BNI bureaucracy, and as a lone freelancer, that was time I simply could afford.
  • It’s very inflexible. They take attendance and you get kicked out if it drops too low. If you can’t make the weekly meeting you’re meant to arrange for a ‘sub’ — which is fine if you work in a big business, but makes it difficult if you ARE the business. You’re meant to regularly bring visitors to the group to increase the membership. You are graded, weekly, on your BNI performance using a points system, which is highly skewed to the number of referrals you deliver. I only work with around 15 clients at a time, so my referral number would never be high, even if a single referral spent a lot of money. This made no difference to the points system and I was encouraged to spend even more time at BNI training.
  • It’s really expensive. BNI is a business, designed to make money for itself. £800-odd per year for your membership. £15 per week to go to the meeting. £30+ for training courses. That’s a good £2,000 a year. In addition to the chargeable hours I was losing from going to all of the meetings and training, it was becoming a huge drain. I certainly made some of it back through referrals, but it wasn’t nearly as consistent as other marketing channels. I got a lot of “the second year is always better than the first”, but while that may be true it’s also because BNI wants to keep getting your money. Only use it if it’s making a clear, positive impact on your business — ignore the peer pressure.
  • It only works for certain types of business. BNI is great for local, transactional businesses. Plumbers, electricians, printers — they do great. It’s not as good for internet-based businesses or those that offer a long-term service. As my web agency was both of those things, I didn’t get much in the way of business and didn’t have a high throughput of clients to refer to other members.
  • The group doesn’t always work together. BNI chapters only allow one member from each profession. This is great, as there’s one ‘web person’, one plumber, one graphic designer. The idea is that all of the referrals for that profession go to that person. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work like that. I found that several people in my group also built websites, they just didn’t mention it in the group because I was the ‘web person’. But they didn’t pass any website referrals on to me either, because they took the business themselves. I suspect this happens a lot in the multi-skilled creative industries.

So in summary, I’d suggest that BNI would work well for freelancers who have a strong local presence and a good deal of time and money to spend on it. You’ll likely make back your investment and form a good network of local business people. If you have a national or global client base, if money is tight or requires a quick return on investment, or if you’re working alone and your time is valuable to the business, I’d recommend giving it a miss and trying a less restrictive group instead.

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