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Greater Omaha Entrepreneurship & Professionals

Stamina, skill, spirit – and a fair bit of sweat. Croatian native Zlatko Turkalj knows all about the “S’s” of sports success; he is, after all, a former Croatian national rowing champion. Now, he’s applying those same “S’s” to the tech startup he helped launch in Omaha last year: Business Exchange, an online matchmaking platform where companies can easily recommend their most valued business partners to – and collect recommendations and referrals from – other companies.

“By doing that, companies can easily turn their current customers into an extremely effective sales force that will generate new qualified leads for them on a daily basis. On the flip side, Business Exchange allows companies to make more reliable decisions when selecting new service providers or suppliers by relying on referrals from other companies in the B-2-B market,” explained Turkalj who founded the company with close friend and fellow Croatian Toni Milovan.

Business Exchange launched publicly in Omaha in October 2013. Its journey to reality is a fascinating one, covering tens of thousands of miles. In February 2012, while Business Exchange was still a self-funded, Croatian-based prototype, it was selected among 20 finalists in three different European accelerator programs: Startupbootcamp (Netherlands), Wiseguys (Estonia) and Ignite100 (United Kingdom).

“Although we didn’t make it to the final 10 companies that were funded, we didn’t lose our faith, and ultimately, we got the verification that we’re working on an idea with a huge potential,” Turkalj recalled.

During the summer of 2012, a group of investors from Silicon Valley, organized around venture fund company 500 startups, invited Business Exchange to join their invitation-only “Geeks on a Plane,” a 12-day tour of emerging markets in Russia, Estonia, Germany and Croatia.

“Those were the most important 12 days on our company’s road map. Dave McClure, investor and 500 Startups founder, introduced us to his friends and business owners, and he offered us an opportunity to visit San Francisco and Silicon Valley and test the idea with local business owners,” Turkalj said.

That was in December 2012. Business Exchange received positive feedback and moved its operation to San Francisco. Then, in early June 2013, one call changed the company’s path dramatically.

“We were accepted to be a part of the inaugural class of Straight Shot, Omaha’s first accelerator program,” he said. “We received funding from local venture capital fund, Dundee Venture Capital, and started a strategic partnership with the Greater Omaha Chamber.”

The Chamber encouraged its members to participate in focus groups and trial the service to test and improve it.

“The Chamber’s president and CEO, David Brown, recognized the value we’re bringing to companies and communities. Now, together with his team, he is helping us move a vibrant Omaha business community to the online environment,” said Turkalj who moved to Omaha in June of 2013.

“We’ve found Omaha to be a place with an amazing business culture and a great number of success stories. From day one, we’ve gotten a lot of love and support in this city,” he shared.

Critics, he said, have tried to convince him that Business Exchange would not succeed, that business owners are too hard to reach and engage with.

“I’m a B-2-B guy to the bone,” Turkalj said. “I strongly believe business owners are the most tightly-connected group of people on earth, relying on each other in day-to-day activities to make their businesses successful.”

He continued, “We launched just few months ago, and now 50-100 companies from Omaha register with Business Exchange every week, proving they have recognized the built-in value. I think nothing is more rewarding than that, and it’s just the beginning.”

Flywheel: A Serial Entrepreneur’s Latest Hit 

“Tom Hanks, to me, took the easy route in Hollywood… He only made hits.” – Steve Martin

Serial Omaha entrepreneur Dusty Davidson has chosen to embrace a “Tom Hanks approach” to launching tech-focused start-ups – he only makes hits. His latest endeavor, along with co-founders Rick Knudtson and Tony Noecker, is Flywheel, a premium WordPress hosting company built specifically for design firms, freelancers and creative agencies. (WordPress is the world’s most popular content management system, powering about 20 percent of the Internet’s website population.)

flywheel-office

“We make it really easy for designers to launch and manage very fast, secure websites for their clients,” Davidson said. “When you take someone’s website that was really slow and move it to Flywheel, you see them get excited about what that means – and that’s super cool.”

Bankrolled, initially, with personal funds and later with an infusion from angel investors, Flywheel launched publicly in September 2013. The idea was borne, like many enterprising endeavors, out of frustration.

“My partners and I all came from web design backgrounds, and we all had to deal with really lousy hosting. … Flywheel is ‘scratching our own itch.’ It’s the hosting company we would have used when we were doing web design and development,” Davidson explained.

He said partnerships within the community were integral in helping the Flywheel concept… fly.

“For Flywheel, the best thing has been its association with the broader start-up community. We were able to raise our funding easily and get early customers because of that network and those resources,” Davidson recalled.

Flywheel is just the latest in a string of entrepreneurial ventures in which Davidson has been involved, a list which includes:

Silicon Prairie News (SPN), a digital media company that publishes a daily news blog highlighting and supporting entrepreneurs on the Silicon Prairie. Founded in 2008, SPN also produces events, such as the The Big Series (Big Omaha, Big Des Moines and Big Kansas City), the Silicon Prairie Awards and the Startup Job Crawl.

Tripleseat, an event management web application that increases bookings and streamlines the planning process for event sales managers in restaurants, hotels and unique venues

Davidson said he is “bullish on the Midwest” as a place that is viable and exciting for start-up companies.

“Silicon Prairie News, in particular, stems from our love for the region and our desire to see it grow and prosper as it relates to start-ups,” he said. “We continue to look at the Midwest as a place that is filled with phenomenal talent. The cost structure for starting, building and developing companies is incredible. The support network is solid and growing, whether it’s capital, mentors or advisors that can help you grow and scale a company. It is a neat time to be involved with start-ups and entrepreneurship in Omaha. There is a ton of activity going, and it’s only going to get better over time.”

And over time, Davidson sees Flywheel continuing to flourish.

“We want to be a big, impactful organization, recognized within the region both for our great technology and culture, and our design and brand,” he said. “For us, it’s heads down growing to get there. We’ll continue to push and grow each and every day.”