Business Network International or BNI® is the largest referral marketing organization in the world. What made it global are its skilled visionaries and leaders like Dr. Ivan Misner, its Founder & Chief Visionary Officer. Today, Ben Baker has the privilege to talk to him about how BNI® came to be, including the hiccups they experienced along the way. Dr. Misner talks about the trainings found in their platform called BNI® University that they have for their chapters and their global leaders. Listen more to Dr. Misner as he shares the secrets to making a good franchise work, how to have networking success, and how to capitalize on technology for growth.
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Giver’s Gain! With Dr. Ivan Misner
I have a couple of surprises for everybody. My team built a subscribe button that is amazing on our website. If you go to the YourLIVINGBrand.live show and you hit subscribe, it takes you to a splash page that has every single piece that I could think of. It’s got the top 10 or 15. Click on the one that you like. It’ll take you to our show right there. Pick the one that is best for you. Enjoy the show. Share with people. I love my audience. I love the questions you give me. I love the comments. You are an amazing audience, but the big surprise that I have for you is Dr. Ivan Misner. In case you don’t know this name, you may know another name. It’s Business Network International. This global firm is incredible. They have done an amazing thing over the last number of years. Dr. Misner, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Ben. I appreciate you having me on.
Ivan showed me his house and his office. He gave me an aerial tour of it. You live in the most incredible, beautiful house in Texas. I love the architecture of that thing.
Thank you. This is my wife’s dream house and my dream office.
That’s what we all get. You and I get the office and our wives get the dream house. I get that.
My wife was born in Texas and I promised her that I would bring her home someday. We moved here. Do you know how you can tell somebody who’s from Texas?
I figure if the Longhorn, you’ll find out quickly whether somebody is from Texas or not.
It’s one thing I’ve seen about natural-born Texans is that they will tell you before they say anything else that they’re from Texas. My wife certainly did when I met her many years ago.Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast! Click To Tweet
When I was in Houston, you’re right, people down there are loud and proud. They’re amazingly loved their state. I thought that was great. I went down there. They took me for barbecue and showed me around and they were proud as anything of the State and the City, Houston. That’s an amazing quality that people have.
Unlike any place, I’ve ever seen before. It’s pretty amazing but I’m happy to be here. It took me a long time to get here.
Talking about amazing rides, BNI® must have been an incredible ride. From the Genesis story to where you are. I’d love to know the story behind it.
I’ll probably date myself with this answer, but it was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I had this vision of an international organization, but the truth is I needed some referrals from my consulting practice. I was a management consultant and I got most of my business through referrals. We were talking back in 1984. I started BNI® in 1985. I had gone to a lot of networking groups in ’84 to networking and get referrals for my business. There was a number that I went to that were mercenary.
I’ve been to most of those.
Everyone was trying to sell to me and I would leave those meetings and I felt like I had been slimed. I needed to go home and get a shower. It was selling all over again. I didn’t like those. I went to these other groups that were social, happy hour in order herbs. I didn’t like those either. I wanted to do business. When I decided to do was to form a group that had a focus on business but wasn’t mercenary. I wanted to get a group that was not social, but relational and business-oriented. I formed this organization, but it wasn’t even an organization, it was just part of my consulting business. We got together and we started passing referrals to each other. The glue that would hold the business and the relational together was this philosophy of Givers Gain. This idea that if I help you, you’ll help me and we’ll all do better as a result of it. People came because we only take one person per profession, they asked me to open up a 2nd, 3rd and 4th chapter. I had the first couple. I said, “No, this isn’t even what I do.”
It’s like, “I join this team, to try to get referrals here.”
I wanted to help my friends. They talked me into it. We have 9,505 chapters in more than 70 countries around the world with 272,000 paying members.
My first interaction with BNI® has got to be in the mid-’90s. That’d be after ’95 because I moved back to Canada in that year. Somebody took me and they said, “You got to come to this networking event.” I was expecting beers and orders. I walk into this room and people were warm, they were social. We all sat down and there’s this program. I’m sitting there going, “This is interesting.” When you first walked in, you’re sitting there and going, “It’s good to get beyond the social, there’s going to be leads being passed here. There are people doing business. People are engaging with each other. People are finding out what other people are about and what they truly need and how they can help each other?” I went, “This is extremely different.” The question is for you is when this thing first started to take off, when you went from the 1, 4, 10 to 20 chapters, did you see this right from the beginning or were their hiccups along the way that said, “That didn’t work. Maybe we need to fix this?”
There were many hiccups along the way, Ben, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Let me answer the hiccups issue. First, I want to talk about when it hit me. When was the moment where I realized that I had a tiger by the tail? It was probably in twenty chapters. I know that sounds crazy, but I was responding to people, their requests to help them out. It was all part of my consulting business. I started BNI® at 28. By the time I was 25, I was taking anywhere from a few days to a whole week between Christmas and New Year’s off. That was my planning time. I would look at my life and what I was doing professionally and say, “Where do I want to be at the end of the year? Where do I want to be in five years? Where do I want to be in ten years? How was the previous year compared to the plan I did the previous year?” That year I spent most of my time thinking, “What happened?”
It was like you got hit on the back of the head you said to go, “Where did that come from?”
That’s what I was thinking, “Where did this come from?” That’s when it hit me. We don’t teach this in colleges and universities anywhere in the world. We don’t teach networking, word of mouth marketing, social capital, emotional intelligence. People are hungry for referrals and there’s no good focus system that’s positive and supportive that is out there. That’s when I decided to create a plan to scale the company and to go all in. I then created that plan to do scale BNI®. Ironically, it was probably about six months after I did that plan and I was looking at it. I remember starting to tell people, “BNI® could have 10,000 chapters someday.”
People went, “Yeah, right. No way.”
At that moment, I had about 25 chapters and I had a guy. He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “10,000. It’s good to have goals, Ivan.” I’m like, “No, it’s possible.” Probably within 2021 going to hit 10,000 chapters. To answer the second part of your question, were there any hiccups along the way? Enumerable, more than I could count. In the process, by early 1986, I started BNI® in ’85 because there were problems. You have to remember I created it, I didn’t plan on having it scale when I started it. Scaling made it a different animal and I had to change some things. What I did was I formed a board of advisors, which was made up of members and then the board of advisors and I sat down. We looked at every policy of the organization and tweaked it, created new ones, removed bad ones. There were a few. Years later, every single member policy that exists in the organization was either written by or approved by, what is an international board of advisors. My approach to dealing with the challenges was having a collaborative set of bodies within the organization, starting with the board of advisors working through the problems together and finding solutions that we could all be comfortable with and move forward with.
As it grew, it becomes a bear. These organizations become an animal unto themselves. How did you manage the growth? When you go from 1 to 5, 10 to 100, 500 to 1,000 chapters, being able to keep the brand consistent, be able to keep the message, the vision and the values consistent, what was the way that you were able to do that? Whether you’re in China or wherever you are in Europe, North America, to be able to sit there and go into any one of your chapters and they are going to run pretty much the same way.
One of the biggest challenges is getting people to run things the same way globally. You could go to almost any country and the program is going to be much the same all around the world. I remember the first time I saw it in a foreign language and someone said to me, “You have no idea what they’re talking about, do you?” I’m like, “Yes, they’re explaining that this is the referral part of the meeting and if you don’t have a referral, give a testimonial.” He said, “You speak the language.” I said, “No, I wrote the agenda.” That’s what happens. He laughed and he was like, “That’s what he’s saying. That’s what’s happening.” Consistency is always a challenge. Let me put it in perspective for your readers. BNI® has over 11,000 people who work for the company.The use of technology is a great way to ensure scalability. Click To Tweet
That’s a lot of people working for the company.
We’re a franchise organization. Most of them are franchisees or employed by the franchise, but they’re all working for BNI® either as independent contractors, employees or franchisees. Scaling becomes more and more complex. There are a few secrets to scaling, one of which is you’ve got to write everything down early on. You’ve got to create manuals and you’ve got to train people on the manuals because education learning, especially in a business is a leaky bucket process. When you train me, some of the information leaks out. When I train someone else, more information leaks out. When they train somebody else, even more information leaks out. After 3 or 4 generations, you had to half a bucket of information, so people start putting in their stuff. One way to help mitigate that is to have manuals and systems in place so that everybody has to use the same material. It’s even easier than it was because a lot of our training is online, which means everybody’s using the same content. People can’t get off the reservation easily as they used to be able to do.
Thank god for content management systems on websites.
A lot of the training that we have is not a video training with someone staying in there, it’s not a talking head. It’s graphical material images that then have to talk in the background. It’ll bounce from one image to another image. The beauty of that is that when you run in 70 countries, it doesn’t matter what language you’re using because you don’t put any language in the images. You have somebody who speaks the language, talking about what’s on the image. The training becomes consistent globally and we’re probably more consistent with our content of material than before because of the implementation of technology that exists. We have a whole platform called BNI® University, where we have tons of content online for free for any BNI® member, which is not only material on how do you run a good BNI® meeting, but how do you get referrals in general. What’s effective leadership? Some things are videos of me talking and then there are subtitles underneath them. Technology has been a game-changer for us.
I love the fact that what you’ve done is you’ve created simple Enneagram videos and then overdub them with different languages. You create the video once and then you’ll send it off to different countries with a script in that language and have somebody put in the language underneath it. That way you can have it in 70 countries. It’s consistency. Everybody has seen the same video. They may be seeing it in a different language. They may be doing it, but it’s consistent across the entire platform. Whenever you’re building any type of franchise model, it’s being able to make it down to the simple, repeatable processes that make a good franchise system work.
This works even if you want to scale one business where a business with multiple locations, whether they’re a franchise or not, but it’s important with a franchise. This whole concept of feature creep is a real thing. That’s where people start adding their stuff in. That’s when people start adding a lot of stuff in it can get off the rails. People can start doing things that aren’t effective or redoing things that were tried in the past and failed. They think they have this brilliant idea and they’re trying something that failed in the past. The use of technology is a great way to ensure scalability. There’s one other element that I haven’t talked about in terms of scaling, which is critical. If you’re reading this and you haven’t hired anybody, this is critical. If you’re reading this and you have hired somebody, you should start thinking about this immediately. That is about your organizational culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is the secret sauce of any successful organization. You need to develop the core values of your business. If you don’t have clear cut core values that you are teaching the people who work for you and sharing with your clients, they are being created for you and you may not know what they are. You may not even agree with them. You got to create core values.
A lot of people say, “How do you create your core values?” Here’s the question I get, “How do you create culture?” Here’s the answer to how you create culture, I’ve never seen anyone put it quite this way. The organizational culture begins by observing the processes in your business that are working and they’re working well. Those processes become your organizational traditions. Traditions are what you tell stories about. You tell stories to your clients. You tell stories to your employees, you say, “We’ve run into that before and this is what happened. When we did this, it worked well.” Those become your traditions. The processes that you do become your traditions, your traditions become your core values, and your core values are the foundation of your culture. If you can develop your core values over time, we have seven core values in BNI®. I didn’t create them all at once. They evolved our first core value. Our principle core value and philosophy are Givers Gain, this idea that, “I help you. You’ll help me.”
They always love. Everybody remembers Givers Gain.
One of the reasons why BNI® is the largest referral marketing organization in the world because we had that as a principal core value and the fact that I was smart enough to trademark it, that helps. We can’t have other networks lifting it. Trademarking is always a good thing if you want to scale a business. The culture is created through those core values. The founder of a company or the CEO has to be a culture champion. That means they need to be out there beating the drum regularly about culture and core values because they are uniquely positioned to talk about that. If you want to scale your business, whether it be global or several employees in a larger operation, culture’s critical. Your core values are the foundation of that.
It’s interesting because you’re speaking my language. I tell every company that they need to have a brand story. We work with a lot of companies where there are either rapid growth, mergers and acquisitions, grandchildren taking over grandparents’ companies and they’ve lost their vision. They’ve lost who they are. They’ve lost their brand and identity, and their employees can’t tell their story for them. They may have these six pithy words of a mission, vision statement, but nobody can repeat it. Nobody knows what it means. Nobody loves it. What you’re saying is that we need to make sure that everybody in the organization understands what the mission, vision and the values of the brand are. Who you are as a company? What’s your about? What you stand for? What you don’t stand for, and where the company is going? Culture eats strategy for breakfast. The strategy’s important, but you need your people to have to believe in what you’re doing. They have to feel that they belong and they have to feel that what they do matters.
Mission and vision are a part of that. For those people that don’t quite know what that looks like, here’s a great way for you to understand the difference between the two. Vision is where you want to go. The mission is how you want to get there. It may be a vision so big that you may not achieve it in your lifetime. For BNI®, our vision statement is changing the way the world does business. That’s a big vision. Am I going to change the way the world does business?
One BNI® person at a time.
Our mission is to help people increase each other’s business through a structured positive and supportive referral marketing platform. We’re going to change the way the world does business through this word of marketing and this business referral platform. Knowing those two things are also part and parcel with creating a great culture.
Let’s talk about leadership. It’s not your leadership. It’s the overall leadership of the organization. You have 11,000 employees and how many BNI® hires are there around the world?
It’s 272,147. I get a daily report and that’s important for scaling also, you have to know your numbers.
I remember watching the things with Facebook as the numbers used to roll over with the number of people that were signing on to Facebook and the celebrations that they had as they reach milestones. Those milestones are important to be able to celebrate as a group. Let’s talk about leadership because as you grow and evolve, as the company does evolve, leadership is important to be able to maintain the brand, the vision and the values. Do you have specific training that you do for the leadership teams to make sure that you are being able to propagate the brand and the brand is evolving across the world in one particular way?Culture is the secret sauce of any successful organization. Click To Tweet
The leadership team training we do is mostly focused on the basic training. It’s mostly focused on how do you run a good meeting effectively. The additional training that we have is on what the core values are? Why they’re important and how to implement them? I have a series of eight videos all up on BNI® University where I talk about. The first video is about why culture is important and what are our core values? I lay them out there. The next seven videos are core value by core value, what it is? Why it’s important and how to implement it? Yes, we had that as part of the training that we provide for free part of the membership on BNI® University. Those core value videos are available for all members, not just the leadership.
They can take that into their organizations and be able to take, “This is what I learned from BNI® and this is how I can take into my organization and help make my organization better.” That is changing to how the world works. It’s changing how the world does business because you’re not just affecting what happens within the BNI® meetings. You’re also affecting how people think when they leave the BNI® meetings and they go and engage with their employees, customers and vendors. It’s that ripple effect in the water.
Let’s talk a little bit about how BNI® has changed because of technology because I’m sure as the world has become more global, as technology has improved, when I first started dealing with BNI®, it was networking within your group. You had 25 or 30 people or however many people you had in your actual BNI® chapter. Those were the people you knew. You pass your cards and you pass your information along. The meeting went that way and you networked about this. Technology has changed and I’m sure you have an app. I’m sure there’s web development all that stuff. How has referral passing, networking and engaging changed because of technology within the organization?
I believe technology flattens the communication hierarchy. It enables us to talk to people and connect with people in ways that we could never do before. In the past, in particular, would say, “Don’t you think the social media is going to put BNI® out of business?” The truth is the opposite happened. In our first eleven years of BNI® from 1985 to 1996, we opened 500 BNI® groups. It’s widely considered that around ’95, ’96 is when the internet became much more viable. From 1996 to 2007, the first eleven years, we have 500 chapters. In the second eleven years, we had 5,000 chapters. Is the internet affected us? Yes, but not like people may think and it helped because it flattens the communication hierarchy. Here’s a tangible example. In the first few years of BNI®, my second largest line item in my budget was the telephone bill. We had an 800 number, and it was because people wouldn’t call long distance. It was a crazy number every month for phone calls. I couldn’t even tell you where the phone bill is in our budget.
It’s buried somewhere because it’s negligible. We can do interviews like this online. I can have conversations with people via Skype, go to a meeting or Zoom face-to-face. Sure, it’s two dimensional, not three dimensional, but it’s better than a telephone call because at least you can see the other person. The technology is fantastic and we have highly integrated it starting in 2010, where we developed a platform called BNI Connect where you talked about having a room full of people around 30 people. You can be a local business but have a global network just like that. You could be a member of a chapter in Canada and be connected with people in Malaysia through BNI® Connect, our online platforms. Technology is a great way to enhance your networking efforts. It doesn’t take away from it.
That’s a game-changer. In Vancouver alone at the time, there were 8 or 10 chapters. Maybe once a year, you got together if you were lucky. Unless you are the type of person that said, “I’m going to go out and I’m going to go to different chapters in different parts of the city or different parts of the country or whatever, and I’m going to take the time and make the effort to go to a different meeting.” You’d never meet these people and there could be amazing things that are happening at a chapter ten miles away from you and you’d never know it. With technology, it says different. What you’re saying about social media, my big pet peeve about social media is that it’s not social. I get connections all day long. People ask to connect with me. First of all, they’ll hit the connect button and they won’t leave a message. Ninety percent of those people I don’t connect with. My attitude is if you want to connect with me, tell me why. Make it personal, make it a thing. If I do connect with people, then I will immediately send them a note saying, “Nice to meet you. I love to find a little bit more about you. What are you passionate about?” Ninety five percent of those people will never respond. To me, it’s amazing that people are using social media to increase their numbers.
Particularly on LinkedIn, I get many connections and I do take most of the connections because if people want to read my content, that’s a great place for them to do it. I do say yes, but I get more people who connect with me and the first communication is, “Do I have a product for you?”
They want to sell you.
I’m like, “Really? Seriously, no.” Here are the ones I love and I get them with some regularity. They say, “We have a fantastic lead generation program that I would like to show you so you can increase your business dramatically.” I’m like, “You didn’t even read my bio.” You have no idea who I am. I’m not at all interested in leads. I’m in the referral business. They don’t even read the bio yet. They want to connect and then they try to sell to you. It drives me nuts.
They will say, “If people took the time to get to know people.” If you listen to people, you understand people and you’ve valued people. The amazing things you can learn about people, the engagement you can have, the relationships you can build, the trust you can form and the business that happens out of it but it takes time and it takes trust.
Networking’s more about farming than it is about hunting. It’s about cultivating relationships with other people. It takes time and trust, I agree. The way I describe it is through what I call the VCP Process, Visibility, Credibility, Profitability. First, you have to be visible. People have to know who you are and what you do. Then and only then can you move to credibility where people know who you are, they know what you do and they know you’re good at it. They may know you’re good at it because you’ve developed a reputation over time or they’ve seen you, observe you. Finally, you can move to profitability where people know who you are, they know what you do, they know you’re good at it and they’re willing to refer you because of that trust. That whole process takes time. It does not happen overnight. What people tend to do is they use networking online as they face-to-face or online cold calling opportunities. “Ben, my name’s Ivan, let’s do business.” They’re not even invisibility. They’re jumping from invisibility to trying to jump to profitability. I call this premature solicitation, which you don’t want to say fast three times.
I first wrote about it in a book called, Business Networking and Sex: Not What You Think. It was about the difference between men and women and how they network. It was based on a study of 12,000 people from all over the world. We found that men were more likely than women to jump right to asking for business and trying to do business. Women were more likely than men to be a little more relational with their business. Women tended to be more relational, men tended to be more transactional. We found that relational work is significantly better than transactional. We even took men and women and looked at relational people versus transactional people. The relational people did better than the transactional people in the networking process.
To me, I look at it as no like, trust. People have to know you. They have to like you before they can trust you. If they don’t trust you, they’re not going to do business with you. They’re not going to form relationships with you. They’re not going to refer you. It’s the same mentality and you’re right, it’s the Givers Gain. The reason why you give first is that you’re giving somebody something a value before you’re asking for anything in return. That’s how relationships get formed.
You’re right, and here’s another way to describe it. When you give a referral, you give a little bit of your reputation away. If you give a good referral, it enhances your reputation. If you give a bad referral, it hurts your reputation. Therefore, having that trust, that relationship, that credibility is critical before you start giving referrals to people because they can make you look bad if you give a bad referral.
Ivan, this has been an amazing conversation. Is the best way for people to get in touch is through BNI.com?
If they’re interested in BNI®, you can find a chapter near you. I have a blog, IvanMisner.com, where I’ve been doing two blogs a week for thirteen years. There’s lots of free content up at IvanMisner.com and I invite your readers to go there. Do you know the expression, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?”Technology flattens the communication hierarchy. Click To Tweet
I don’t believe it’s either. I don’t believe it’s what you know or who you know. It’s how well you know each other that counts. If your network is a mile wide and an inch deep, it will never be powerful. Your network needs to be both wide and in places deep because it’s that those deep relationships that make a significant difference in your networking efforts.
Ivan, this has been incredible and before I let you go, I have one last question for you. It’s the question I ask everybody as they leave my show. When you leave a meeting or you get off the stage or wherever you are, and you get your car and you drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you’re not in the room?
Usually, I go to events and I’m speaking, I’m a keynote speaker, and I’ve been on stage. The one thing I want them to have taken away from that is that they got value. That there are tangible ideas that will serve them well in business. Were you looking for something more specific?
No. It’s the thought that comes to your mind that’s important. Value is a big thing. People need to sit there and say value, if not that something was cheap, they got something of value. People remember value far more than they remember that they got something inexpensive.
I want people to walk away feeling like they’ve got some ideas that they can take out and use and not just get entertained, although little entertainment is good too, I want to make sure they get value.
Ivan, you’ve been a wonderful guest. Thank you for being on the show. Hopefully, someday you and I can share a stage. I would love to be sitting in the wings and listening to you speaks. It would be an incredible honor. Thank you for being such a great guest.
Thank you, Ben. I appreciate the invitation.
- Business Networking International
- Givers Gain
- BNI University
- BNI Connect
- Business Networking and Sex: Not What You Think
About Ivan Misner, Ph.D.