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India Chapter of The World's Largest Referral Chain is Here to Stay The company today generates over $11 billion through referrals

By Punita Sabharwal

You're reading Entrepreneur India, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Entrepreneur India

How many times have you asked somebody for a referral? Knowingly or unknowingly, we all do this, all the time within our network. A company thought of making it a business practice and today generates over $11 billion through referrals. Founded in 1985, US based Business Network International (BNI) claims to be the world's leading referral chain. Chairman and CEO, Graham Weihmiller who joined BNI in 2014 and is currently executing BNI's strategic plan in its 73 operating countries speaks on entrepreneurship, franchising, and operational excellence.

Is this your first visit to India?

No, I had come here almost 20 years ago. With BNI, it's my third or fourth travel.

How is India shaping up as a part of the Asian market for BNI?

It's a very significant market. We are very excited about the developments in India and will continue with those. We have opened a new office in Bengaluru. I am very excited about the new leaders coming in.

Initially, were you aware of the vastness of the market or whether you were sure about entering into the country?

We felt confident for a number of reasons. First of all, tier II cities in India tend to be very large as per global standards and they are developing rapidly. By opening up BNI chapters in all these cities, we are giving them a chance to grow up and connect with them across India and world.

Was there any tweaking done with regards to the Indian chapter?

Sometimes, the franchise organizations need to customize their model when they enter a new country. In case of BNI, not much customization has been done in terms of the business model.

In terms of the popular franchises, where does India fit in?

India is a rapidly growing market and contributes a lot in the global franchising picture. I think the franchise model in India is going to be very successful. Franchising is a proven business model and it will help the economy grow. I think BNI can support franchising in number of ways. At times, franchising becomes numbers and it provides ongoing training and as an organization, sometimes you feel like an island but when you join BNI, it is a part of the support mechanism. This year at the International Franchise Association, BNI had the single largest organizational presence in the world. We will be hoping for that again in 2018.

Internationally which are the biggest markets?

The organization started in the US, so by far today, it is still the biggest market and we have almost 84,000 businesses in the US alone. We have significant markets in Germany, France and the UK. But India is very quickly adapting to the growth.

Markets like the US, doesn't it come to a saturation point post expansion?

We do lot of research before entering a market and we have not reached the saturation point at any of the market as the membership in the model is applicable to small and medium size enterprises and also the large ones. In the US, we have close to 84,000 businesses which is less than half of the 1 per cent of the SMEs. So that is an indication that sky is just the limit. India is of course more than four times the size of the US in terms of population. And, we expect that the country will continue to grow economically.

So all the chapters which have been opened till now are franchised?

Today, primarily the membership experience is within the chapter. Now, we are beginning to enlarge other chapters around the world. We are seeing a lot of interests from businesses in India, China, who are to do business with BNI members in Europe, North America, etc. We are investing heavily in technology to make the process easy.

Would start-ups contribute to the members in the organization?

Yeah, absolutely. I think startups have a unique role. First of all, they tend to be very well networked in their community because they are actively working with investors and various mentors. That's a very high-energy part of their development and at the same time, it's a good opportunity for them and helps them avoid to get too focused on their own business. Liasoning further helps and BNI is one of the most positive organization by nature as it is one of our core values and I think entrepreneurs will benefit out of it.

How does BNI worldwide support the regional members?

There are a number of things – firstly, we focus a lot in training. So we deploy members who again support and train members globally. To support the training, we invite ambassadors, leadership team and invest in technology and that's what adds value to our product. One of the technologies that we have recently deployed is a new mobile app. Further, we also do large scale events and put in a lot of research. For example, our global convention in Los Angeles is coming up in few months, wherein we bring 1400 leaders across the world. BNI was always a closed door phenomena and recently you have started campaigning with it. Strategically, we think expansion is important because the organization has become large. We are investing heavily in the systems and training. So strategically, for expansion, raising awareness is important. When I first learnt about BNI, I asked 50 mentors, friends and advisors about it, guess how many knew about BNI - only two. However, after I learnt about it universally, either one of them got involved or they knew someone who wanted to get involved. That has been our experience worldwide. Part of our goal is to help spread the word about BNI. That could be helped by this system to invite many people to visit the chapter.

Internationally, are there any sectors from where most of the members come in?

We have many categories. The diversity of our membership model is incredible. There are four categories which help form a new chapter which would be - accounts, financial advisors, buyers, and insurance brokers and it depends on which country we are dealing in.

Several start-ups are actually raising funds, so this will this referral system would also further help them raise funds?

We are looking at helping them financially, in many ways. I would say today it naturally happens because we have some senior successful members and also start-ups. Because as a member of BNI you have a natural network, you plug into that and it happens every day. Going forward, we are planning to connect to entrepreneurs with various sources of financing. Networking today has helped a lot of entrepreneurs to connect with each other in terms of business profitability. Today BNI help a lot of people to get together

Punita Sabharwal

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur India

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