Fourteen BNI chapters are flourishing in Sarasota County alone, part of a 35-year-old collaboration phenomenon.
SARASOTA – The clock is running on a 90-minute Zoom meeting, and there is not a moment to spare. There are organizational updates and notices to tend to, but all 39 virtual attendees are here for the main show — the entrepreneurial equivalent of speed dating.
Each has 30 seconds to state their name, their business, their hook, and the sort of fish they hope to catch. The one with the best “ask” will get an entire whopping 60 seconds to make a pitch next week. Their occupations are all over the board, white collar, blue collar, eclectic. After the meeting, they will disperse with colleagues’ agendas in mind.
With COVID-rattled employees cautiously returning to the workplace, a caterer tells peers he’s “looking for pharmaceutical reps who want to bring food into doctors’ offices.” A residential mortgage broker needs people shopping for their first home. A plumber has just invested in a new camera that can pinpoint the exact location of a pipe rupture, which allows him to fix the leak with minimal collateral damage.
A residential cleaning specialist tells the assembled to remind clients suffering from allergies that it’s probably dust, too, because who has the wherewithal to get up and clean off the high shelves and surfaces? “We don’t cut corners,” she vows, “we clean ‘em.”
“The highest dividend money pays,” announces a financial adviser, “is the ability to control time. Being able to do what you want, when you want, where you want, with who you want, for as long as you want, gives a lasting level of happiness and security.”
Residential Realtor Carey Beychok informs her cyberaudience that, although closed residential sales are down 41 percent, “as expected, I must say that our active listings are down 25 percent and our month’s supply is down 29 percent.
“I need listings. We all need listings. So please keep your BNI ears open and your goggles on for new listings for me. Carey Beychok, RE/MAX Alliance Group – homework is what I do best.”
Beychok is also president of Referral Champions, a Sarasota chapter amid the 35-year-old collaboration phenomenon called Business Network International.
Founded in 1985 by Ivan Misner, whom CNN called the “father of modern networking,” the BNI formula has spread to 70 countries. It claims 270,000 global subscribers who, according to its website, accounted for $16.7 billion in member-generated revenues in 2019. Fourteen chapters are flourishing in Sarasota County alone.
It’s actually a no-brainer of an idea. Misner figured out that folks would rather work with people they know and trust instead of strangers. Chapters are founded by professionals who’ve forged positive working relationships with each other. They vet new applicants’ credentials, licenses, etc., and use their own community connections to steer business and services to fellow BNI members.
Caveat: No competing with each other. In other words, just one arborist per chapter, one chef, one commercial Realtor, one residential Realtor, one personal trainer, etc. New members get coached by the old hands, and all can polish up on networking/marketing/presentation skills via online resources called “BNI University.”
But no matter which chapter you’re visiting, domestic or abroad, the structure and the slogan (“Givers gain”) is the always the same — a weekly 90-minute get-together, succinct introductions and asks, and constant followups.
Sarasota literary editor Liz Coursen — “find me someone who wants to be an award-winning writer” — has attended BNI meetings as far flung as Italy, Switzerland and India. Language may have been a barrier, but the flow invariably follows the same script, and the quality of host services is consistent.
While attending a BNI conference in Denver, for instance, she booked plane, car and hotel reservations, acupuncture therapy, and a canoe trip through BNI members. It went off without a hitch.
“The money I spend with BNI members is all tracked and reported,” Coursen states, “and people on both ends of the equation get credit and are accountable.”
Price of admission? Assuming your credentials pass muster? There’s a $299 application fee on top of a $699 membership fee, or $999 for two years. Plus a $66 monthly-venue charge, which covers the costs of those weekly breakfast meetings at a downtown Sarasota restaurant. Only, the venue fees have been waived since the coronavirus put the kibosh on most social gatherings, and the meetings went online.
Given the return on investment, says Robert Lauser, those fees are a bargain.
Lauser, a Gulf War veteran, owns Grim Reaper Pest Solutions in Venice. The longtime exterminator says revenues generated by BNI referrals gave him the cushion he needed to leave the company he worked with and invest in his own startup.
“I love the Chamber (of Commerce), but the competition’s always in the room,” says Lauser, now a BNI director consultant who supports two local chapters with education and training. “Fortunately, through BNI, I got to know a banker, a business attorney, people I could trust, who made it so much easier for me to go out on my own.”
Residential mortgage broker Brad Benson has been with BNI for nine years and says it was one of the smartest moves he ever made.
“We look at it in terms of spheres of influence. It’s like a spiderweb where we’ve got kind of a hub and a spoke of referral partners,” he says. “Me being a mortgage broker, Derek (Robbins) being a Realtor, we have some great insurance agents, great title agents.
“And it helps us grow our business and create a little power team because a lot of us refer internally with trusted professionals we can use.”
Beychok founded the Referral Champions chapter in 2014 after spending 11 years as a charter member of yet another Sarasota BNI unit. She talks up how a single BNI connection in New Jersey led to five residential transactions for her in Sarasota.
The decision to forsake breakfast meetings for virtual gatherings was a top-down management move at BNI’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, in March. Fortunately, Beychok says, most Sarasota members are weathering the virus with minimal damage. Those that weren’t so lucky — close-contact professions, like massage therapy — can count on BNI colleagues for backup, Beychok says.
“We’ve been supporting them by buying gift certificates, or maybe they have an online store,” she says. “And what’s interesting is, since the coronavirus, we’ve been having 100 percent attendance every week. And we have three new applications pending.”
Beychok says the enduring and ever-expanding popularity of BNI is no accident.
“The ROI is tremendous,” she says. “If I had to train and manage 30, 40 people under me – well, I don’t have the time for that. But I don’t need to. BNI is literally your sales force, and they all know what they’re doing.”