Networking, we have been doing it since we were children, from the moment we set foot into the playground (and probably long before) we socialise, we get to know people, build relationships. We grow up; we continue to make new friends, some close, some not but our social circle grows. As human beings relationships are vital, we are social creatures and we need them for happiness, and well survival, life in business is no different. No matter what industry you’re in, no matter what sector, networking can grow your business, create new customers, and bring in more money. Despite the new media age and the vast improvements in technology, businesses still need good old fashioned word-of-mouth. To get that, you need to know people and people need to know you; they need to know your business. Thats why BNI (Business Networking International) is such an important organisation, it helps you network and gives you access to people in a range of industries who you otherwise may never have had the chance to meet.

I recently attended by first BNI chapter, each meeting is called a chapter; I had the pleasure of visiting the Leeside chapter here in Cork., I was brought along as visitor and honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect. The meetings start at 7am, so it doesn’t affect your working day. It begins with an open networking session, with coffee and breakfast. So I went in, nervous, I had the ‘first day of a new school’ feeling. But within five minutes, I was chatting to people, getting to know them and what they do. I was networking. The great thing about these chapters is that they only allow one person from each industry to attend, so if you’re an architect, then you’re the only architect there, so referrals go to you and you alone.

After the open networking session, the meeting got underway. It was 60 second speech time. As I waited for my turn, I listened intently to the other speeches and got used to the set-up. What amazed me was that attention never waned, despite the fact that it was early morning, the other members were enthusiastic, and they listened to each other, made notes and seemed so eager to help each other out. The 60 second speech, while brief, allows individuals to spread their message, to communicate it to a room of (in this case anyway) around 20 people. These people then know your business, they know what it is you want or need and hopefully, will be able to refer business to you in the coming week. Then, in turn, you refer business back to them. The business cards of all members are passed around, you take one of each, you keep it with you and if you get the chance you pass it on to someone you may know.

It’s a relatively simple idea, but the success of BNI is incredible. It has chapters all over the world. In Ireland and the UK there are over 611 chapters, in 2011 referrals from these amounted to around €332 million. Times are tough, cash isn’t flowing as steadily as it once was, but this shows the power of relationships and how beneficial referrals can be. But to me, this isn’t just about cash flow. You get to meet new people, expand your social horizons, get presentations skills, find new opportunities, and breakfast is thrown in!

I was brought in as a visitor and so far I have attended two chapter meetings (and hopefully a few more!), my purse is bulging with business cards. I started off nervous, and came away excited. Excited about the possibilities, the relationships and the new people I had met. If you have never thought about BNI before then start now, start growing your business by growing your friendships.

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