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BNI: Business Network International, Is It Worth It?

by Pythagoras Matko
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What is BNI Group?

Business Network International (BNI) is a business referral group that claims to be the world’s leading ‘referral organization’. With over 240,000 members in 8,500 local chapters across the globe, BNI holds regular meetings to discuss business incentives and goals. Members support each other’s brands by sharing referrals for optimal growth, visibility, and expansion.

With BNI continuing to grow, is it truly worth its annual fee and time investment? Is it a scam that promises networking opportunities without delivering measurable results? The answers to these questions seem to vary among members and former members alike. While some claim it’s a money cult with no promises of ROI, others continue to defend the group against mixed and negative online reviews.

With this in mind, let’s break down BNI and see if it’s legitimate or nothing more than your run of the mill pyramid scheme.

Business Network International – The Networking Essentials

At its core, BNI is a global networking platform for businesses of all sizes and industries. Its signature referral marketing program helps owners increase business via referral sharing. The latter is designed to develop long-term relationships – with other businesses – that increase leads, profits, and revenue.

The official BNI website states that “members of BNI passed millions of referrals that generated billions of dollars for business for each other.” They also list the following facts for those that are unsure about joining their referral network:

  • 98% of businesses rely on referrals to secure new business.
  • Only 3% of existing businesses have strategies geared towards referral generation.
  • BNI member referrals generated $13.6 billion USD in business revenue in 2017.

While these figures are directly from BNI, the fact is that many new and established brands do not have sound strategies for generation referrals. With this in mind, BNI offers a platform to build greater business through ongoing referrals. In fact, some members have groups of people that regularly send them referrals; a compelling and engaging way to foster sales teams online and remotely.

How does BNI work?

BNI takes a user-friendly approach for joining their global business marketing and referral network. However, existing members send invites to guests or stand-ins to experience a day of business referral networking. This is done in what is called the Breakfast Club: weekly breakfast meetings with local BNI chapters (groups) to understand how they operate and whether they appeal to you or not.

Invited members get access to the following:

  • Learn how to pitch your business and gain referrals from other members.
  • Schedule 1-on-1 meetings with members within your local chapter for the following week.
  • Review educational workshops from an existing member and report any new referrals you have generate for others in your group. This includes referrals that have come in from other members.

With these particulars, you may be asking yourself is BNI worth it? Well, generating business leads via referrals may seem promising on paper. However, there is an annual membership fee of at least $690 US (A$1,000) plus $20 per breakfast as part of your membership cost. You will be required to attend breakfast referral meetings weekly while generating referrals for your fellow BNI members. It all starts by finding your local chapter and checking to see if you know members within that chapter/group.

BNI – The Downside

As with any global referral network, there are downsides to investing in these ventures. For one, nothing is ever guaranteed and you get out what you put in. BNI may seem profitable to many but it’s not exempt from complaints and horror stories. In fact, here are some mixed reviews/concerns from former members and folks (unnamed) that attended a breakfast meeting or two:

  • While BNI may pique your interest, the time commitment is something to weigh. Again, weekly meetings are required for all local chapter members. One interested member in Sydney felt the weekly meetings were very difficult to commit to. There is travel involved and it may place an obstacle for members building lifestyle businesses.
  • New brand owners are finding upfront investments too high for their self-funded and bootstrapped businesses. There are also different classifications for those that allocate their time entirely to the business referral process – and those that do not. In essence, the more you commit, the more you may see results.
  • As part of your application and review, you must commit to finding referrals for other members within your BNI local network. This may be a hurdle too since there are members involved in different businesses and industries. Unless you are super confident that you can cater to their needs and vice-versa, BNI membership may create more problems than solutions.

Will BNI work for your business?

There is no clear cut answer to this question that continues to be asked by many interested individuals. According to Amanda Griscti of the FlyingSolo online community, BNI is only worthwhile if you know what you want and need from the group. You also have to ask yourself if the local BNI group can meet your referral needs within time and budget. The last thing you want is to be out-of-pocket due to the failure of your teammates to deliver on referral promises.

Still, Griscti recommends attending one breakfast meeting to make an informed decision. Again, you will need to be invited by an existing member of your local chapter. You may be just a guest or an official stand-in for someone in the group that cannot make the meeting. Also, you must review the BNI FAQ to get or stay informed about the Group’s updates and policies. It is important to look into other network groups too if this industry piques your interest.

BNI – Final Thoughts

BNI may not be for everyone but does seem to offer potentially lucrative opportunities for its members. However, there are so many things to keep in mind about this multi-faceted organization. This includes the ongoing debate between BNI members about ethics and choice. For example, should you refer a friend who has the same specialty as someone else already in the group? If so, does BNI allow members with similar business specialties to join the same local BNI chapter?

According to the Group’s rules, they only accept one person per business specialty in a BNI Chapter. So if you are an SEO expert wishing to join a group that already has an SEO expert, you will be referred to another chapter. BNI may also work with you to open a new Chapter geared towards your specialties. Just remember that the decisions of the Membership Committees per Chapters are final in all cases.  BNI claims its only agenda is to substantially increase your business through its proven referral program. Yet, the terms of membership agreements may not be as clear as one would assume. Therefore, it is crucial to go over their policies with a fine-tooth comb before making an investment that may or may not improve your business.

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