The Top 7 Things I’ve Learned from 30 Years of Heading the World’s Largest Business Networking Organization

30 years ago this past Thursday, I put together about 20 people in a small coffee shop in Arcadia, California for the very first meeting of BNI® (Business Network International).  The organization was run from a small bedroom which was converted into an office inside my house in La Verne, California.

The House Where BNI® Began

The House Where BNI® Began

I am humbled by the fact that today the organization has over 7,000 chapters in 60 countries with over 170,000 members world-wide.  In addition, we have over 30 BNI staff at HQ and more than 3,000 BNI Directors and Director Consultants working for the organization!

I don’t believe any of the two dozen or so people who were present at that first meeting fully realized that this was the beginning of something amazing. 

That realization came to me almost a year later between Christmas and New Years as I looked back in amazement at having opened up 20 groups during the year.  At this point I recognized I had struck a chord within the business community.  We don’t teach networking in colleges and universities anywhere in the world, and business people are hungry for referrals. They simply had no viable way to generate them regularly back in 1985.  It was during that week that I sat down and put together the outline for a plan that has evolved into what BNI is today.

I was recently asked by a BNI Director what the secret to this growth was.  I’ve taken some time to write down some of the key factors I think contributed to our success as my answer to his question.  These are factors you won’t find in most business books, and they weren’t taught to me in graduate school.  But I think they were critical to our success in this organization and they may be relevant factors to you, too.

BNI's Current Headquarters Building in Southern California

BNI’s Current Headquarters Building in Southern California

Lessons I Learned in Developing BNI:

  1. Set Goals. I know – everyone says “set goals,” but let me give you a slight variation to this concept.  I recommend you set three levels of goals.  By setting goals in this manner, you give yourself some flexibility in where you want to go over the next year (or years).
    1. High – set a goal that is a stretch. This is one that will be very difficult to reach, but it is definitely possible.
    2. Target – set a goal that you are confident you can reach. It won’t be easy, but it is definitely possible.
    3. Low – set a goal that if everything goes wrong, you are still confident you can reach this.
  2. Reverse engineer your goals. At each level above – where do you want to be at the end of twelve months from now?  That number would be 100% of your annual goal.  Now reverse that.  At nine months you should be at 75% of that goal.  At six months, you should be at 50% of that goal.  At three months, you should be at 25% of that goal.  Check your progress every month.  Stay on track.
  3. Do six things a thousand times, not a thousand things six times! I think one of the big mistakes businesses make is that they jump from one bright shiny object to another. For me, success has come by being like a “dog with a bone!”  I have taken techniques that I’ve seen work, and then I’ve done them over and over and over and over.  Six things, a thousand times.
  4. Create a larger vision. It’s never too early or too late to create a larger vision.  Create something that is a unifying concept for you, your employees, and possibly even your clients – something that resonates with people and creates a long-term vision for the company.  For BNI this began with our philosophy of “Givers Gain.”  It has been inculcated throughout the organization and has been the guiding force of our referral-marketing program.  It led to our vision statement of “Changing the Way the World Does Business” which is all about businesses collaborating and cooperating through our philosophy.
  5. Maintain personal engagement. As a company grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to be personally engaged in every aspect of the business.  That means you must make choices.  However, you must continue to be personally engaged as much as possible.  Technology has enabled me to stay engaged with members and directors (through my visitations, video messages, this newsletter, my blog, the BNI Podcast, our social media, and BNI Connect, to name a few). Nothing replaces personal engagement.  The more you remain engaged, the more your vision can thrive.
  6. Ignorance on fire is better than knowledge on ice. One thing I’ve learned over the last 30 years is that I can teach people “how” to do something (including network).  I can’t teach them to have a good attitude, and I don’t have time to send them back to Mom to get retrained.  The only thing better than “ignorance on fire” is “knowledge on fire.”  If I can take someone who is on fire and teach that person how to succeed, our organization becomes unstoppable.
  7. Do what you love, and you’ll love what you do. As a business person, you are either working in your flame or working in your wax.  When you are in your flame, you are on fire.  You are excited and energized.  When you are working in your wax, you are drained and fatigued.   As a company grows, it is easy to get caught up doing more and more in your wax.  Find out what your flame is, and then do your best to work more in that flame.  Find people whose flame is your wax and put them in the roles you no longer love doing.  This will free you up to work in your flame.

I’d love to hear any thoughts, questions, suggestions, or observations that you might have about the BNI organization whether you’re a member of the organization or not and I’d also really like to hear any key lessons or tips for success which you’ve learned through your own experience in the world of business.  Please share your thoughts, etc. in the comment forum below–thanks!  






10 thoughts on “The Top 7 Things I’ve Learned from 30 Years of Heading the World’s Largest Business Networking Organization

  1. Hi Ivan
    I really like this article. Especially the last 2 points – Ignorance on fire is better than knowledge on ice and Do what you love, and you’ll love what you do.
    As education co-ordinator for my BNI Riverside (category Business Coach) in Western Australia (and a new BNI Ambassador) I am always looking for BNI stuff to use. Over the years I have learned not to reinvent the wheel and also to leverage.
    So thank you. I will be a regular visitor to this site and will always attribute my source.
    Michele Alexander

  2. Dear Misner

    It was very interesting, specially the Set of Goals. As an Enterpernuer all this years we were looking for Goal and never thought of Least achievable Goal

  3. Wow that was really useful especially 1st setting goals 5th point personal engagement and the flame and wax thing really its a source of energy surely will follow this and forward to all my Bni Dynamic friends.

  4. Dear Ivan

    I had great pleasure yesterday to teach a group of sales managers hailing for our country and Nigeria in the tourism and travel industry on the subject , Network Your Way To Referrals. It gives me great pleasure to say that I recommend BNI in all training, speaking and coaching sessions. In fact, Ive been doing so since I started my business in 2007. As a life-long student of success literature, your article resonates with me. Thanks for your amazing legacy.

    Karl Smith- TheNetworkingGuy

  5. Dear Dr. Ivan,
    Your second point, “Do six things a thousand times, not a thousand things six times”. This is really an eye opener.
    In today’s world, when so many new things are happening almost everyday, we tend to get distracted very quickly and dream to achieve everything around us and in the process achieve nothing.
    BNI has taught me great skills.
    Best Regards,
    Juthika Bhattacharya
    Hyderabad West, India

  6. Dear Dr. Ivan,

    Thank you for sharing these Lessons, They will go a long way in my growth
    as well as that of my Colleagues and Staff. Special mention goes to “Set Goals”, “Six Things a Thousand Times”, “Personal Engagement” and “Do what you love, and you will love what you do”.

    I am a relatively new Referral Partner at Champions BNI Goa India and am very happy being an integral part of this Great Business Networking Organization

    Luiza Gera

  7. Hi Ivan,

    Thank you for sharing and having the vision for starting this remarkable organization 30 years ago! I love the High, Target and Low goal setting part of this post too and I’ll be sharing this with my organization!

  8. Ivan, Thank you so much for sharing your history. The three goals are so powerful. For me the six things a thousand time really hit home. It reminds me of one of my favorite mantras: “Repetition is the mother of Skill”. Congratulations on 30 years. I am honored to have been a part of 26 of those years. BNI is in my blood, and I love checking my pulse and feeling the flow of Givers Gain.

    Empowering Regards,

    Bob Nicoll
    Remember the Ice

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