I first heard about BNI (Business Network International) when I started to attend Guildford Connections networking meetings. Opinions on it ranged from “it sounds good but there should only be one 6:30 a day” to associating it with the Freemasons: mysterious and cultish. When I was offered the opportunity to attend, I was nervously intrigued.

I was invited to sub at the Cathedral (Guildford) BNI chapter (BNI-speak for group) for Educational Consultant Liz Kirk, which meant getting a free breakfast in return for reading out her 60-second pitch. I headed to the Mandolay Hotel for 6:30am (hesitantly wondering if anything could be worth getting up at this time). I was shown where the tea and coffee were, and allowed to fill my cup and take a few caffeinated sips before turning to a conversation.

Masonic couldn’t be further from the truth: while a “chapter” may sound a lot like a Lodge, they are open and friendly, and women are definitely invited. They even have a list of their members on their website, and the entire ethos of BNI is making sure everyone you know knows them.

Compared to the other networking events I’ve been to, BNI ran a much tighter ship. The 60 second elevator pitches were timed, with a waving hand indicating when your time was about to run out. Once you join BNI, you are offered training on how to use your elevator pitch to full effect, but the principle is simple: don’t just tell us who you are, tell us who you’re looking for.

BNI is a “referral networking organisation”, meaning members are actively encouraged to bring new customers to their fellow breakfast buddies. An entire 20 minute section of each meeting is devoted to this, where one unlucky BNI-er is given the task of distributing the many referrals to their targets across the room. There was also a lot of self-back-patting, although apparently justified! In that single meeting, several thousands of pounds of business had been done, and last year more than £2.4billion worth of business was done between members of BNI worldwide. The rewards I reaped from the meeting were slightly less tangible, but still fantastic – meetings with people who work in events, exactly what I’d been hoping for.BNI does receive a lot of criticism about being too costly in both money and time. It’s true that certain types of business will profit more from being a member (such as plumbers, lawyers and photographers, i.e. local companies that appeal to a wide variety of people), but the rise of social media has shown that word of mouth is the best kind of marketing, and BNI is this on a physical level. Personally I can’t speak for the financial investment, but if I had the money I would definitely pay to get the sort of introductions that I got at the meeting.

If you get the opportunity to visit BNI, then I’d definitely advise it. The atmosphere was intensely supportive, and everyone genuinely cared that the rest of the room got business, almost as much as receiving it themselves. To all those recent graduates who want to get their head above water, offer yourself as a substitute to your local BNI or similar networking group. And to all those with businesses, if you can afford it, join. Sure, it’s an investment, but it’s proven to pay great dividends.

REQUEST: I’d be interested in attending any other networking groups in the area, e.g. 4Networking. If anyone has any contacts there, or suggestions of other groups, I’d love to hear them, and in return I’ll write a super-blog-post about all the differences between the different networking meetings in Guildford!

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