Michelle Weinberg was looking to develop new networking possibilities for her Green Lake advertising and specialty-merchandising company, Design One. Disappointed by the lack of a local chamber of commerce and with previous experiences with various networking groups, she began searching on-line for an alternative.
She found Business Networking International (BNI), a group whose purpose is "to share contacts, ideas and referrals" according to their webpage.
Weinberg recruited members, and on April 12, 2006, the Creative Alliance for Growth (CAG) was chartered. This chapter of BNI now has 17 members, ranging from independent business owners to insurance and real estate agents to various members of the health-care profession, including a shamanic practitioner.
The group meets every Wednesday at Alebrije, a Mexican restaurant at 6417 Roosevelt Way N.E., at 1 p.m.
"It's a great way to get you out of the office and open the door to other professionals and marketing ideas," Weinberg said.
BNI's webpage claims that the group's entire referral system generated more than $1 billion of business in 2005. Weinberg says that there are more than 50 chapters in Washington alone.
The organization is very rule-driven and "highly standardized," according to Weinberg. Each chapter can only feature one member from a specific profession. At every hour-and-a-half meeting, each member must give a 60-second "commercial" explaining the services his or her company offers.
There is also a referral and educational component at every meeting. Each week, two group members must give eight-minute, in-depth presentations on their business.
Members must attend meetings every week. If they are absent more than three times in a six-month period, their profession's position within the group becomes "open."
Terms such as "karma" and "spiritual principle" are not commonly associated with business, but Steve Motenko uses them in describing his involvement with BNI.
After a couple of negative experiences with referral groups, he was reluctant to join CAG. Motenko, a personal-development coach with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Harvard, is quite impressed with his experience in the group.
"Within the first month, I'd had four new clients," he said, "and that is significant."
In addition to CAG's business benefits, Motenko emphasizes the personal aspect, as well. He claims that the BNI model is successful because it teaches its members how to "show up in the world in authentic ways."
Samuel Lowe, a Farmer's Insurance agent, also notes BNI's less-obvious aspects.
"I could tell you from a group perspective I've gotten business," he said. But he also says that the BNI model "makes me more of an expert in what I do."
Lowe and Weinberg both emphasize the value of "honest referrals" within the group. Weinberg said that many networking organizations require referral quotas, which can be difficult to meet. CAG doesn't have quotas.
"The referrals are not fluff referrals; they're real referrals," she said. "So you know when you get a referral, this is probably going to mean business."
In one instance, the group's web designer had a client who needed promotional items for his company. The web designer referred the client to Weinberg, and now the two CAG members and the client work as a team to further the web business.
Creative Alliance for Growth is still seeking new members. Weinberg would like the group to grow to 25 to 30 members.
The group states in a press release that its goal is to "continue to strengthen business in Green Lake," but being located in that area is not necessary. Motenko is based on Whidbey Island and travels to Seattle to meet with clients. Lowe's office is located just east of the University Village.
The only requirement for new members is that they are willing to attend the meetings and that their specific profession is not yet represented within the group. Possible new members must submit an application, which is reviewed by CAG's membership committee.
The Creative Alliance for Growth is working for many of its current members, but Lowe emphasizes that it is not for everyone: "It works for some people for a certain period of time," he emphasized.
"Most businesses are started by somebody with a little bit of a dream," Lowe said. "So if you find that you have a dream to do something, BNI is a good avenue to kind of learn how to get your business on track. You've already aligned yourself with 15 to 20 people that are on the same track."