Business Network International, commonly known as BNI, is a private organization developed to create meaningful relationships between business owners to drive up business. In short, BNI was created to drive word of mouth referrals by giving members the opportunity to share leads with each other and refer each other to clients in need of specific services.

BNI was founded in the United States in 1985, and as of 2019, it is an international network of business professionals with approximately 8,900 chapters operating in 70 countries. Today, BNI has more than 250,000 members across the globe.

BNI Purpose and Overview

The primary BNI purpose is to connect entrepreneurs and other professionals with each other in a structured, development-focused setting. Members of BNI connect easily in this proactive environment that promotes verbalizing members’ business-related needs and actively pursuing leads.

BNI meetings are usually weekly and follow a strict schedule that includes elevator pitches, member presentations and networking. BNI connect opportunities occur during members’ brief pitches and the open networking period, when members can follow up with each other after hearing the services they offer and the services they need.

Although many BNI members are small business owners, membership is not strictly limited to entrepreneurs. Many BNI groups include professionals who work in private practices like lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and insurance agents.

Becoming Part of BNI

Becoming part of an international network of business professionals like BNI can be expensive and time consuming for an entrepreneur. In the United States, BNI membership costs $500 per year. In some chapters, the membership fee is higher in order to cover room rental costs and food expenses. Additionally, BNI officially prohibits members from being absent more than three times within a three-month period.

Because BNI chapters are individually operated, some chapters are more strict about enforcing BNI’s official rules than others. Each chapter has some freedom to interpret the BNI rules as it sees fit but must generally comply with BNI’s official guidelines.

BNI is open to entrepreneurs and business leaders from all industries. In most BNI groups, members are limited according to their industries and specializations. This means that within one BNI chapter, a plumber who applies may be denied membership if there is already a plumber in the group because having two plumbers in the group can make it difficult for both of them to receive referrals and pursue leads. However, if there is already a personal injury lawyer in a BNI chapter, a real estate lawyer may be permitted to join because they would not be competing for referrals.

BNI Benefits for Entrepreneurs

Joining BNI gives an entrepreneur access to an international network of business professionals. Although BNI is comprised of individual city-specific and region-specific chapters, many groups regularly host and attend mixers that give their members the opportunity to connect with members of other BNI chapters.

BNI membership grants business leaders benefits like:

  • Access to BNI Connect, BNI’s members-only app
  • Weekly learning opportunities at chapter meetings
  • Regular referrals from other BNI members
  • The opportunity to develop personal relationships with other local business members

BNI operates on the principle of “what goes around, comes around.” Using this framework to understand BNI's purpose, a member can expect to gain as much value from her membership as she puts into it. By participating in BNI meetings and referring her contacts to other members, she can grow her own business through the referrals she receives. However, it is important for any entrepreneur who is considering joining BNI to remember that every chapter is unique, and some chapters have a stronger presence, a greater commitment to business growth or simply a better fit for her business referral needs than others.