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Q&A: BNI Founder’s Dr Ivan Misner on  networking, and why it’s so important today

Called the “Father of Modern Networking” by Forbes and CNN, Dr Ivan Misner is the founder of BNI, the world’s largest business networking organisation. To date, BNI has over 9,800 chapters around the world, connecting professionals and business leaders from across industries. 

Dr. Ivan Misner

As the BNI Global Convention held in Singapore comes to a close, Dr Misner shares his thoughts on the importance of networking, and provides insight into why he founded the organisation back in 1985 and how that foresight he had on the importance of networking in a non-threatening environment came to be realised. 

Tell us a bit about BNI. What was your vision and mission when you founded this organisation back in 1985?

I had been involved in different kinds of networking organisations for a long time, but couldn’t find one that was suitable. Some groups were quite mercenary in a sense that the people there either attended the meetings to sell, or be sold to. I also checked out other groups that were really social but those groups didn’t really have an agenda, so it wasn’t helpful for my consulting business back then. 

When I lost a big client, I knew I needed to do something. I’d like to tell you that I had this vision of an international organisation with almost 10,000 chapters in 70+ countries, but the truth back then was that I simply needed referrals for my consulting practice. So I formed a group made up of a few friends and people that I knew and trusted. They were people I wanted to refer to and likewise, I hoped that they would want to refer me as well. 

In December 1984, we had an informal meeting to talk about the possibility of forming a group for the purpose of networking, and by January 8, we held our first informal meeting. People who attended that meeting loved the concept of merging businesses, and the glue that held it all together is this philosophy of Givers Gain – the idea that if I would help you, then you’d help me, and we would all do better as a result of it.

It is this concept of Givers Gain that separates BNI from any other network from day one. We continued meeting for a while before I started getting referrals for my consulting business. And since we created a rule where we would only allow one person from one profession at a gathering, people started asking if I’d open a second group so they could join. By the end of that same year, we had 20 active groups that just happened organically.

We didn’t have a plan until I thought about it further in December 1985, when I took a few weeks off to reflect. I do this even today, where I would take time off around the new year to ask myself where I want to be in the next five, ten years. I realised that I had struck a chord in the business community, one that isn’t taught in colleges and universities. While everyone is looking for ways to build their business through referrals, few know how to network effectively. And it was at that point that I started to proactively scale BNI. If you’re interested in how I planned and scaled a business globally, you can listen to one of my podcasts on, Garage to Global. 

The term ‘networking’ is used quite loosely in today’s business environment. How would you define this term, and how important is networking to an organisation?

The definition of networking to me is the process of developing and activating your relationships to increase your business, enhance your knowledge, expand your sphere of influence, or serve the community. Successful networking is about helping others as a way of growing your business. The people you help are more willing to help you or connect you to the people they know. Through networking, you can build a referral-based business by activating your relationships either online or in-person.

Singapore has recently been labelled as a new-business-building hub. Can you share with us the role that BNI plays in supporting businesses that are starting up here?

BNI has been in Singapore for more than two decades.  We have seen and been a part of the amazing growth in this region. In fact, two of the original members from the original first global chapter are still involved in BNI today after 38 years.

BNI not only supports startup businesses, it also helps existing businesses scale their companies. 

The theme for this year's conference that was just held in November was “Bigger Networks, Better Knowledge, and Stronger Businesses.” What is the thought behind this theme?

Bigger, Better, Stronger is about creating a mindset-reset.  We live in challenging times and people have a tendency to focus on problems rather than solutions.  At BNI, we want people to know that hope is more powerful than fear.  Your networking relationships can be a beacon of hope in a sea of fear.  It was a theme that we felt would give the right mindset for growth in uncertain times.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way businesses and organisations connect, both internally and externally. What are some of the key challenges you think businesses face today and how should they address them?

If a business today is not leading the disruption, they will be disrupted. Technology is changing the business landscape rapidly, and the pandemic only accelerated what was going to take place anyway. Only businesses that are willing to pivot and adapt to change will survive over the next few years. This is also one of the reasons why BNI has transitioned our operations to include online and hybrid meetings. 

More businesses today are pivoting to become a hybrid workplace. Can you share your thoughts on the hybrid workplace, and how this has or will change the networking landscape?

Four years ago I mentioned that online and hybrid operations are the future. That future is now. Technology flattens the communication hierarchy.  It not only allows people to communicate with one another all around the world, it also allows people to communicate with top leaders in a way that was unheard of when I started BNI back in 1985.  Today, we have almost 300,000 members. However, people can reach me directly through my blog, podcast, and social media platforms in ways that were impossible decades ago.  The future is here and change is inevitable. Get on the train or get run over by it.

As a global organisation, how relevant is BNI in this region, and how has it been able to support businesses in APAC?

Singapore is a hub for business throughout Asia.  It was the obvious choice as a location for our convention this year. The top-notch facilities, infrastructure, and most importantly, the people, were perfect as hosts for our global convention.   

BNI held the first in-person conference this year after two years. Can you share with us some of the highlights at the event?

This was our first in-person convention since November 2019. We had over 2,500 people in person and roughly 1,000 more online around the world attend this convention.  It was an amazing experience for all who attended. Our keynote speakers addressed the future of business on various topics such as sales, networking, scaling, and customer service.  Lifelong Learning is one of the core values for BNI, and this convention was all about improving our skills in business as well as networking with like-minded individuals.

Q&A: BNI Founder’s Dr Ivan Misner on  networking, and why it’s so important today

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