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.”