How to get ahead in networking

7am might not be everyone's idea of the best time to generate leads, but for members of Business Network International (BNI), the earlier they start, the better.

BNI, a business referral service (which originated in the US), was established in the UK seven years ago. It now has a presence in 18 countries, comprises more than 65,000 companies and last year UK members generated over £150 million worth of business. There are currently nearly 500 ‘chapters’ (the largest of which has 44 members) UK-wide that meet for two hours once a week.

Participants get 60 seconds to talk about their business, then the meeting is devoted to swapping potential client leads. To avoid conflicts of interest, no two of the same type of business can attend. To join, there is a one-off fee of £80 and then an annual subscription of £320, which entitles you to free training sessions.

‘What you get for £400 is up to 44 people looking for business for you. You get a team of motivated people and no commissions are paid,’ explains Martin Lawson, BNI national director.

Simon Patnick, managing director of business gifts and promotional products company Merchandise Mania, joined BNI when he founded his business four years ago.

‘At first, I thought “oh my god, what are all these people doing here at this time of the morning?” But an hour later, I realised there was business going on – I wanted to be part of it.’

He believes the most important aspect of being part of the BNI is to instil its philosophy – ‘givers gain’.

‘If I give you business, you will want to give me business – it’s about building relationships that you can trust,’ he stresses.

Patnick believes, however, that 60-second pitches don’t really give you the opportunity to get to know other members. He has made a point of visiting them for a one-to-one meeting, believing that this ‘marks the difference between a good member and a great member’.

But be warned – the early mornings need to be rigorously adhered to. ‘For participants, the real cost is commitment and time. Be prepared to build relationships and invest time in networking outside as well as inside. People won’t refer business to strangers,’ emphasises Lawson.

Patnick’s business is now turning over in excess of £1 million, and is expanding in the UK and abroad. His current commitments mean that he has recently resigned from BNI, but he has appointed another staff member to take his place.

‘I’m still passing on referrals, even though I’m not as involved as before. It’s a great way of finding business and improving your personal skills, such as public speaking,’ he concludes.

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Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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