Menlo Park: Networking group generates business through referrals

Small business owners rely on group to help each other get customers

Every Wednesday morning at 7 a.m., about 35 people who live or do business in Menlo Park meet for breakfast and networking at Menlo College. They are members of a local chapter of BNI, which stands for Business Network International.

There are eight chapters in San Mateo County and and 15 in San Francisco County. Internationally, the organization boasts 190,000 members in 7,300 chapters and $8.6 billion in business generated via referrals.

This reporter sat in on one of their meetings in El Camino Hall at the college to find out why so many people would wake up so early to listen to other people talk about their businesses, week after week.

The answer is that it appears to pay off. Members of the Menlo Park group have generated referrals for each other that the members estimate are worth $3.7 million in the last 12 months and $14 million since the group started in January 2011.

The idea of the group is to gather people from a diverse range of industries, have them get to know each other's businesses, and generate clients and referrals for each other.

There's only one person per professional specialty, so there's no competition for service referrals. Members have to pay membership fees, about $445 per year, and must adhere to attendance requirements.

They are also encouraged to visit other members for one-on-one meetings to better familiarize themselves with each other's businesses.

The group was founded by Jan Gabus, a Menlo Park dentist, about five years ago, he said. It was "a slow time in the valley," he said, and he was looking to "stimulate the flow of new patients" through his doors.

The chapter began with a group of five to 10 people, one of whom was the father of current group member Laura Martin Miri, who works at Martin Wealth Management in Menlo Park with her brother, John Martin.

During the recession, Judy Horst saw her colleagues in the group, especially those who work in home improvement or real estate businesses (and call themselves "the homies"), having a hard time.

"(It's) hard to weather some of the ups and downs of the economy," said Ms. Horst, who runs a marketing business and has been involved with the group for about four years. Coming out of the recession, she said, many members benefited from being in the group. "It's a real lifeline," she said.

A lot of local small business people would join, she said, if they knew the benefits of the group and how it creates a kind of sales force for their business.

Through her involvement with the group, she's learned useful details about other industries why it's important to work with licensed contractors, for instance that she can then pass along to other people she encounters. Plus, she said, if you don't like someone in the group, or their work, you don't have to refer them.

A typical meeting

After serving themselves breakfast, each member gives a 30-second pitch about her or his business. Usually two people have the floor to give a more in-depth presentation, such as a discussion about their industry and a brief business lesson.

Then, each member reports on the referrals or one-on-one visits he or she has made over the last week. People fill out small paper slips that contain the estimated in-kind value of the referral.

For instance, if Joan Slaughterbeck of Slaughterbeck Floors had a client with termite-eaten floors, she might have recommended the services of Mike Judas of Franz Termite Control, and would have filled out one of the slips. The slips are gathered into a basket and at the end of the meeting, they become entries into a weekly door prize drawing. The estimated value of the services are then tallied and count toward the group's monetary goals for collective referrals made.

The group is looking for new members who work as accountants, massage therapists, business lenders, chiropractors or phone technicians.

Disclaimer: Adam Carter, an employee of Embarcadero Media (parent company of the Almanac) is a member of BNI.

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