More than 400 people are lined up to buy what Tom Fleming is selling. But it's not something tangible that his customers can hold or take home. Fleming sells opportunity.
Specifically, Fleming, the executive director of Hillsborough-based BNI West Coast Florida, sells the opportunity to network with fellow business leaders and the potential for increased revenues through referrals.
He first witnessed the hype generated from BNI networking meetings as a member of the organization's Boston chapter, then as a BNI-sponsored educator and finally as the owner of two Florida BNI franchises of his own.
The student-turned-teacher has grown the organization's membership by more than 1,500 since he purchased two BNI franchises with only 13 members in 2003. Fleming's forecasted addition of 400 members this year would bring his revenues to about $930,000, an estimate based on the $365 price of an annual membership and a one-time fee of $100.
Although its West Central Florida chapter started small, BNI, an organization that coordinates weekly networking events centered on the exchange of referrals, proclaims itself as the largest business networking organization in the world. The parent organization has chapters in more than 55 countries and generated 6.5 million referrals in 2010, according to its website.
Fleming says the organization appealed to him after he experienced failure in his first entrepreneurial efforts. While running a vending machine business, Fleming says he had a hard time finding new clients to help sustain his business, which ultimately failed. When he found out about the networking and referral opportunities BNI provides business owners, it made sense for Fleming to get involved.
After his experience with BNI in Boston, Fleming knew he had to develop a simple model for the prototypical BNIWCF chapter to foster the growth he sought. “I wanted to develop a strategy to maintain long-term growth,” he says.
It turned out to be a daunting endeavor. Fleming spent the first six months of his franchise ownership with no revenue trying to create a recipe that would be easy to implement, but still attract dedicated — and paying — members. “I ate cereal three times a day for a while there,” he says.
Referrals are the core of BNI's success, luring curious business owners to the organization, so Fleming created strict standards for the expectations of a BNIWCF member. Fleming says the admission process alleviates concerns about members who are there to gain contacts but never really help others with referrals. Says Fleming: “I rarely see a member that doesn't pull their weight.”
One of the expectations is that members record the revenue they receive through BNI referrals. The organization collects forms members fill out tracking referrals and the business they generate to show the company's economic impact. Fleming puts this figure in the tens of millions.
Although the referral system is a key aspect of BNIWCF's business model, Fleming says the heart of the company is advice that members get from each other. He stressed for the organization to focus on developing professional relationships. This also ensures sustaining memberships. “Our members exchanged $65 million in referrals last year,” Fleming says, “but the relationships that came out of those meetings is priceless.”
The company also offers training by members whom Fleming refers to as “director consultants.” They help educate client-based business owners on how to ditch cold-calling for alternative methods of advertising. Word-of-mouth marketing, the same method Fleming espouses, is the most popular.
Fleming understands the difficulty and risk in startups. After receiving severance from a Boston-based retail firm that went out of business, he embarked on a couple unsuccessful entrepreneurial ventures, including the aforementioned vending machine business. After joining BNI in Boston, he trained as a director consultant.
His father's declining health brought Fleming to Florida in 2003 and he soon found a BNI member seeking to sell his franchise. Even though he was heavy in debt, he bought it along with a corporate franchise.
The sizeable waiting list shows that the replicable recipe Fleming cultivated is working. The buzz around BNIWCF is just as Fleming wants it. He brings up the initial hype surrounding fads. “That's how I want people to feel about BNI West Central Florida.”
Fleming's Boston accent has started to fade from his time in Florida; he can say “marker” without getting puzzled stares. But, he doesn't intend on letting BNIWCF do the same. “I'm here for the long run,” he says.