Dr. Ivan Misner, Author of over 20 books to date, deemed the father of modern networking by multiple media outlets, has a lot to teach us all, about referral based businesses. Founder of BNI, Business Network International) built in 1985, is an American franchised networking organization where members meet weekly to discuss business and support each others businesses by sharing referrals. It claims to be the world’s leading ‘referral organization’. and which has grown to over 9,400 chapters in more than 70 countries worldwide. His success is measured by his ability to excel in any given field, by surrounding himself with leaders and by constantly learning and honing his craft.
Reaching your 35th year as a company, what made you decide to launch a networking platform in the first place?
I started BNI 35 years ago, I found a lot of networking groups that were, very mercenary it was just about selling to people, and then I went to other groups that were very social, and there was no business being done. I didn’t like either of those and so I put together a group, that had a focus on business but also had a focus on relationships. The glue, that would hold that together is our principle core value : GIVERS GAIN. This idea that if I help you, you help me, we’ll all be better as a result of it. We now have 9,400 chapters in more than 70 countries around the world.
How did the franchise model come into place?
The franchise is a territory where somebody can open up multiple chapters. It’s locally owned and operated. There’s a lot of training, they have to follow the policies and requirements set up by the franchise.
Was it always like this?
No, in the beginning they were all company owned chapters or locations, then later we found if we made it locally owned and operated it would run more effectively.
Was BNI your first business?
No, I was a management consultant when I started BNI. I had started the business as a management consultant, and I sold my business as a management consultant in 1989 and did BNI full time after that.
Did you have an entrepreneurship mindset, or what triggered you to start your own business?
I think I always had a little bit of an entrepreneurial mindset, I did some small businesses when I was a kid, selling things door to door. I have a business that ran longer than BNI, a property investment company. I started in 1982 and that business is still operating today.
What do you think is the core skill set that differentiated you from others?
I think a lot of businesses fail because they do one thousand things, six times. *It doesn’t have to be six, it can be five or seven but it’s a handful of things that you do over and over again. If I had a super power as a business person, I’m like a dog with a bone. I just work on it and work on it and work on it until it gets results. I think what happens is, entrepreneurs tend to chase bright shiny objects constantly. Rather than, do what it takes to get the job done over and over and over again and when the job’s being done, teach somebody else to do the things they don’t like to do so they can move on to other aspects of the business. I think one of the reasons I’m successful is because I focused on doing six things a thousand times.
Do you believe there’s a formula of what’s going to become successful or a timeline of when you should give up on something ?
When I say do six things, I’m talking about six things that work. How do you know what works? It can be through trial and error but it should also be based on learning, education and mentoring.I know what works. You know what works through a couple of things. It could be trial and error. But it should also be, based on learning, education and mentoring. You have people who mentor you, you can have virtual mentors. I’ve read many books when I started BNI to help me lay the ground works for the business that I created. You listen to mentors, real life mentors or virtual mentors and you take your experience and you hone down the things you want to focus on. Then you do those things, over and over and over again and consistently, and when you do that then you know is this a business that can take off or not. At some point, you do have to let go of some businesses. If you see, and other people see some real promise in this business, one or the other, then work it to the point where it’s clear to you that this is not going to work.
When did you think that happened for you? Where you decided there was enough potential to want to grow this?
I knew at the end of that first year. I had not set BNI up originally, to have multiple chapters. I just wanted one chapter to help me get referrals from my consultant practice and to help my friends, and people kept asking me to open more groups because they wanted what they saw. At the end of the year, I had twenty chapters. Before the new year of every year, I take a few days and just reflect and that year I sat back and I thought : what happened, what just happened this was not part of my plan. I realized that what I had created was really a classic example of necessity being the mother of invention. I opened 20 groups without trying, what would happen if I tried? That’s when I sat down and created a plan to scale BNI. We now have over 9,000 chapters in 70 countries. We have over 10,000 employees that work for the company worldwide.
When you sat down and created a plan to scale, did you involve partners, outside investors?
No I didn’t. I did it on my own. I bootstrapped it. I do have people who invested, a few years ago. I no longer run the day to day management, I still own part of the company. I’m basically the spokesperson for the company now.
In the meantime you’ve been able to write and publish 24 books.
There’s method to my madness. What I’ve learned years ago, if I wanted to talk to a media outlet, and I went to them and started talking to them about BNI they would say take an ad, we’re not going to do an article on BNI, not usually. What I had hoped is, would they do an interview if I wrote books and talking about the book of course BNI would come up. I discovered the media will interview any crazy person with a book, they interview authors. Most media reaches out to me about a book, and when they interview me about the book they mention what led you to write this book and then I tell them about BNI, then they’re really interested. The books are the mechanisms for me to do two things : one, get the media interested in the topic and two, teach people how to network because they don’t teach this in University or college anywhere in the world.
You had mentioned reading books that helped you along your path, can you recommend any books about networking?
The book I read that had the biggest influence on me, was a book by Michael Girbert in the 80’s called the “E-Myth” stands for the entrepreneurial Myth. It’s a very good book that talks about working on the business not in the business, I took a lot of the ideas that Michael talked about there and made sure to implement that into BNI. That helped me scale the company.
How did you become so good at networking ?
It was a learned skill. I method acted my way through it the first year, I figured it out as I went. What I did that was different is, I wrote everything down. So when something worked, I wrote it down. I wrote what I did and how it worked, when something didn’t work, I wrote down what I did, and why I thought it didn’t work. Now that become important because when I was teaching people how to network, including later, franchises of BNI, I would be able to say to them with experience “do this” it works. Don’t do this, it doesn’t work. This is an example of doing six things a thousand times,
What was your biggest challenge at the beginning?
Back then, it was figuring out what worked, because no one had ever quite done this before. People like water, tend to seek the path of lease resistance. So they like to do what’s easiest not necessarily what’s best. One of the things I learned early on in BNI is that one of the strengths of a network is that most of the members become friends. I also learned that one of the weaknesses of a network is that most of the members become friends. It’s both a strength and a weakness because friends don’t like to hold friends accountable, but if you don’t have accountability all you have is a social meeting. There’s a fine line between having a system that has accountability but also allows for friendship to flourish.
What have you noticed has changed over the years when it comes to networks?
Technology has flattened the communication hierarchy in organizations like mine. I can have members feel like I’m talking to them, by doing podcasts. Talking to them by replying to a comment they made, responding to things on Facebook. Email, Skype, all of these tools where 30 years ago I couldn’t talk to a member in another state, easily without it being incredibly expensive. Another thing that’s changed, we are able to get all our members together on one platform, we have a platform called “BNI Connect” and we’re able to get all our members together, to network. It comes with your BNI membership.
I’m the Kernell Sanders of BNI, I think the Founder of a company is uniquely positioned to be the spokesperson for a company in a way that no one else could ever achieve. As long as that spokesperson likes being in that role. I ran the company for 30 years, I’m happy to take this role now and let somebody else do a lot of the heavier lifting. All in service to BNI. I love BNI, I love what I’m doing – it’s a very good place to be.
As an entrepreneur, what advice would you give other entrepreneurs who want to build or scale a business?
Networking is more about farming than it is about hunting. It’s about cultivating relationships with people. People tend to use networking like a face-to-face cold calling opportunity. Like right into sales, and often times people hate networking cause that’s what they experience. That’s not networking – that’s face to face cold calling. It’s about building relationships, when people fully understand that they do a much better job at it.
Entrepreneurship suggestion – throughout your career, as much as possible – learn to work in your flame and not in your wax. Find opportunities to work in your flame and not in your wax. When you’re working in your flame you’re on fire, you love what you’re doing – people can see it in the way you behave and they can hear it in your voice. When you’re working in your wax, it’s taking all your energy away and it’s something you just absolutely don’t like to do. As a business grows, when you’re new you got to do it all.
Sometimes you got to do what you got to do to get to do what you want to do – but you have to keep your eye on the ball – to find people to fill your wax. So you can live in your flame. If you do that over time, you can build a very successful business and still be as excited about it as you were 35 years older.
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