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Which breakfast networking group?

14th Mar 2011
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Mark Lee compares the most popular breakfast networking groups that accountants frequent.

During Netski 2011 I spent time with the founders of several business networking groups - including Dave Clarke of NRG. This follow-up piece compares and contrasts some of the UK’s most popular breakfast business networking groups.

The most widely known breakfast networking group in the UK is BNI. It is an international organisation and was officially launched here in1996. Since then a number of rival organisations have arrived. These include BRX in 2003, BoB in 2004 and loads of standalone groups that are specific to their local area. The newest UK wide competition is 4Networking – established by the larger than life character Brad Burton in 2006.

During Netski 2011 I chatted with Tim Johnson, director of strategy for 4Networking. He suggested that there are three main types of breakfast network that are as distinct as the full English, continental or vegetarian options available for breakfast itself.
Johnson described the choices as unstructured, open-structured, and closed-structured and explained the key differences.
Unstructured meetings are typically put on by organisations as a secondary marketing activity to their core business. Commonly these will be arranged by a local solicitors practice, or a local business promotion or coaching organisation, he said”

These types of meeting usually require no membership fee nor encouragement to join. There are often quite a large number of attendees so such events may appear to offer good value at the outset. But if the events are too infrequent, it can be difficult to build relationships with people over time. The events themselves tend to have very little structure leaving people to fend for themselves, and suffer from a tendency towards spammy promotional material from both the organisers and the attendees.

There is a skill to networking effectively in an unstructured environment. It’s one that few accountants have, and despite being a seasoned networker myself I’m not sure I have it either!

Johnson feels the same way and told me that he about a full-on one day course he attended on how to work a room with confidence: “Although the content was great, true and valid, there was a whole day’s worth of information. Just think how many days more it would take to learn, integrate, practise and apply that education in order to make best use of it.”

Most accountants find it quite difficult to walk into a room full of strangers, initiate a conversation, guide the conversation to make it worthwhile, and then follow up afterwards. Not only is that hard but it’s quote unpleasant to be in an environment when everyone else seems only interested in trying to promote their services. On balance it’s easy to see why most accountants doubt the value of attending unstructured networking breakfasts.
Tim Johnson then explained how structured networking events are different.

Structured networking events provide a clear format for people to follow so that it becomes much easier for people to take action that they would ordinarily find uncomfortable to do in an unstructured environment. This may be to practise presenting their business using an elevator pitch or more detailed presentation, to having specific slots to pass referrals or to have one-to-one meetings. The events are held regularly, generally either weekly or fortnightly and are membership based, so that it becomes much easier to get to know people well over time.”
Why this is important?

“It’s important to get to know people over time because that’s when you get to know the people you feel you can trust and it works the other way round too. They get to know, like and trust you. This means that in addition to the friendship support and advice that comes naturally, you’ll be able to refer people when the situation presents itself. This ‘selling through the room, instead of to the room’ is a key differentiator between structured and unstructured networking events.”
According to Johnson there are two types of structured meetings. “There are open and closed meetings.  With closed meetings, such as under the BNI and BoB models, there is a ‘one member per business category’ stipulation and membership is to that closed group only.

“The idea behind this is that as the accountant who has taken the accountancy slot, all the other members are meant to refer work to you. It can be very appealing to think that 20 or so other category members are going to start referring clients to you. The flip side however is that you now have a duty to pass referrals to the other 20 or so members of the group. As an accountant you are known to have a large number of clients who hold you in high regard and there may be some pressure to open up access to your client list. Problems arise though if there are some members of the group that you do not like, know or trust?  Are you likely to refer work to them?  Is it possible that some of the members might not like, know and trust you?” 

Having done a little research since my return I would add that such groups also require your regular attendance and that you send a substitute if you cannot attend in person.
“There are also open structured networking events,” Johnson continued. “Not only is membership open to as many people from the same profession as they choose, but also members can visit and network at any number of groups around the country.”

Having since checked, I think this facility is unique to 4Networking. This distinctive approach is just one of many that makes them very different to the majority of other groups. Does it work though?

“At first this idea may appear daunting as you encounter another accountant or two in the room! But think about this for a second there a plenty more accountants in yellow pages, and even more on Google. The more accountants there are in the room, the more prominence it gives to the idea of thinking about who other members use as their accountant. As networking groups are a relationship-building platform more than a direct sales channel, it is only natural that people form relationships with different people for different reasons, and to have wider choice makes sense.”
Since returning from Netski2011 I have done a little research and found that there are clearly significant differences between the different types of networking groups to which Tim was referring. BNI meetings generally start at 6.30am and finish by 8.30am. In effect they are over before the work day starts. 4Networking, on the other hand runs from 8am-10am. Others tend to start around 7am. Do you network before work or as part of your working day?

I am aware that plenty of accountants love their BNI groups. Others have tried it and decided that it’s not for them. That’s fine. But do not assume that all breakfast groups operate in the same way. I have attended both BNI and 4Networking breakfast groups. They are very different in so many ways. I’m sure that other groups also have their own distinctive styles.

Do share your experiences as comments below.

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of and chairman of the Tax Advice Network. His personal website and blog are at:

Tim Johnson is director of strategy for the UK founded 4Networking, which runs more than 260 (open structured) breakfast networking groups across the UK and an active online forum for over 40,000 members.   

Replies (4)

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By alan.kennedy.smithkennedy
14th Mar 2011 22:18

Networking for Accountants

I am getting very good work from BNI.  Over the years i have been to numerous networking groups but have never got so much work as I have from BNI.  The structure works really well and leads to more business.

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By FirstTab
21st Mar 2011 10:14

BNI - Terrible

I joined BNI. It was terrible for the following reasons:

Giver gain mantra. I do not see any evidence of BNI as an organisation following this. Once the minimum numbers were reach BNI Director leaves and takes no part in incrasing memebership.I was expected to make BNI money by recuriting for them. So I pay a membership fee, follow their strict rules and worwork for them for free!Group dynamics were just not for me. I hated the rules. People were blindly following them. I attended 4n a couple of time. I felt this is far better.

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By alan.kennedy.smithkennedy
21st Mar 2011 10:37


Dear First tab I have to disagree with you.  The rules are written by the members not the heirarchy becuase they lead to more referrals.  It is up to members to grow their chapter not the area director.  The sub is for admin. 

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By RussellD
06th Jul 2012 09:36


I have only really experienced BNI and a number of other unstructured groups.  BNI was brilliant for referrals.  

Our group grew from 25 to 38 members (max 40) and went from passing 12 - 15 referrals each week to over 100 referrals each week.  Clearly there were leads that didn't go anywhere, but is there any marketing activity in the world that guarantees 1 sale for every 1 lead received? 

It was hard work, but paid for itself many times over.  The leadership team however is critical - a strong and confident team will create a strong and active group.

The bigger challenge for the BNI groups I interacted with is that all - bar Natwest (who frankly sent sub standard people anyway) were micro businesses.  Since leaving almost 3 years ago I have never again worked in a context where access to micro businesses would be a massive advantage. (while micro business owners do sometimes know the odd business person in larger companies more often people mix with others similar to themselves - that was my experience anyway)

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