A Shot At The Dream

Omaha Innovation Accelerator Straight Shot Offers Mentoring, Funding for Start-ups

In the heart of Askarben Village, just a short walk from Jones Bros. Cupcakes and Askarben Cinema, is another village. Surrounded by the Scott Technology Center’s solid architecture and top-of-the-line security, a pack of entrepreneurs has been housed for nearly 90 days. These 13 men, who make up seven companies and represent five states and two continents, have come together for a shot at the American Dream.

Holding his own bottle of the American Dream, Mark Hasebrook – founder of Dundee Venture Capital and arguably Omaha’s most successful startup entrepreneur – hopes his new project, Straight Shot, will give them just that.

When Hasebrook first started out, he had a hard time finding people to invest in his startups.

“It was hard to find people who wanted to write a check,” he said. “In the back of my mind I always said someday I want to be able to do that.”

Earlier this year, Hasebrook launched Straight Shot, a 90-day program, often called an accelerator because of its fast-paced process that pairs e-commerce and web-based startups with investors and mentors.

The program’s curriculum is built solely on mentorship – strategic mentors (successful CEOs and entrepreneurs), expert mentors (marketing and public relation gurus) and professional mentors (lawyers and accountants). Straight Shot has more than 200 mentors and includes big names such has Bill Fisher, partner at Treetop Ventures, Doug Wilwerding, CEO of Optimas Group and Bruce Hoberman, chairman of Proxibid.

Startups meet with mentors at least 20 hours a week during the 90-day process. A series of workshops are also hosted each week, including “pitch sessions” where the entrepreneurs get to practice selling their idea to investors. Each month, Straight Shot features a monthly speaker at their mentor dinners. Tracy Britt, financial assistant to the chairman at Berkshire Hathaway, headlined at the mentor dinner for the month of August.

On Oct. 3, at the end of the 90-day accelerator, Straight Shot will fly in investors from all over the country for Demo Day – an event very similar to ABC’s Shark Tank with Mark Cuban. Demo Day, which will feature a cocktail party and mini-documentary of the 90-day journey, will give startups an opportunity to pitch to investors, media and community members. Four hundred people are expected to attend Demo Day at Askarben Cinema.

In the last ten years, hundreds of accelerator programs have surfaced throughout the United States and Europe. But for Omaha, Straight Shot is the first of its kind.

“The idea is to bring companies to Omaha,” said Faith Larson, Straight Shot program director. “We want to have 100 companies in 10 years.

Offering only one program a year, Straight Shot kicked off the city’s first accelerator in July. After evaluating nearly 400 startups, seven were chosen – HuntForce, Cosmic Cart, CardioSys, Cympel, Crateful, Business Exchange and BuyNow. All but one of these companies are relocating to Omaha.

“We take companies at all stages,” Larson said. “We wanted a company that’s unique, solves a problem, has a market and has a team of quality people.”

Once accepted, applicants agree to relocate to Omaha for 90 days and to give Straight Shot six percent of their business. In exchange, Straight Shot not only pairs startups with investors and mentors, but also gives the businesses $20,000 for housing and living expenses.

Of the seven companies chosen, three of them are from Omaha. The other four are from Louisville, Ky.; Durham, N.C.; Minneapolis and San Francisco.

All 13 men, whether having traveled across town or across the country, are banking on a program without a track record.

Best friends and Croatian natives Zlatko Turkalj, 35, and Toni Milovan, 40, are two of those men. Both hail from Pula, Croatia – a city right on the sea. And though they are best friends now, it didn’t start out that way.

The two met at a local Croatian college in the 1990s. Zlatko entered college as a high school rowing champion and as part of Bosnia’s 1995 national rowing championship team.

Milovan,  several years older than Turkalj, was entering his senior year at the college after being forced to stay home after a war broke out in Croatia in 1991.

While countries like the United States and others were discovering new ways to use technology in the 1990s and early 2000s, Croatia was behind in all things involving the Internet. This gave way for computer gurus Turkalj and Milovan, who had not yet met, to start web-based businesses.

The two started out at competitors, each offering custom-made web solutions, until 2003 when they met at a computer lab at the college.

That same year, the once-competitors merged their businesses to offer web-based solutions to businesses throughout Europe. In 2007, they started the first IT cluster for government agencies in Croatia, Turkalj said. The hope was to create an online space for businesses to exchange information.

From that merger came Business Exchange – a B2B software-as-a-service model that provides transparency to customer/supplier relationships.

Turkalj is the Managing Director of Business Exchange. Milovan is the lead developer. They make up one-third of the company, and are the two bold businessmen who were tasked with moving to Omaha for 90 days.

Business Exchange got the attention of U.S. businessmen after being the only eastern European business invited to “Geeks on a Plane” – an invite-only tour for startups, investors and executives to learn about burgeoning technology markets worldwide, according to the Geeks on a Plane website. After participating, Business Exchange was invited to test their product in the United States in 2010.

That same year, Business Exchange grew from a dream in Croatia to an official business based in San Francisco. Turkalj and Milovan linked up with a fellow Croatian native living in San Francisco. In December 2012, Turkalj moved to San Francisco to help get the business off the ground. While the two manned the company in San Francisco, the development team made up four people, including Milovan stayed back in Croatia.

Just a few months into his first trip to the United States, Turkalj talked to Hasebrook about coming to Omaha.

“I wasn’t sure about the Midwest or Omaha,” Turkalj said. “I took a chance.”

Turkalj moved to Omaha in July and with him was Milovan, who had never been to the United States. They were greeted with office space and a 90-day business plan.

“This has been a roller coaster,” Turkalj said. “You learn, build, measure and do it again… over and over.” Most days, including weekends, they work 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Over the course of their time in Omaha, fun has consisted of attending mentor dinners, the men said.

“Think of a normal business as jogging,” Milovan said. “And think of this (Straight Shot) as sprinting, but for six miles.”

“This is entrepreneurship on steroids,” Turkalj said. And with the sacrifices he has made, he is glad it is working out.

When Turkalj moved to the United States in December, he left behind his wife and 5-year-old daughter in Croatia. He has not seen them since February, but is hopeful he will see them in a few months.

Since moving to Omaha, Turkalj has decided to make Omaha his home. His wife and daughter, who have never been to the United States, will be moving here with him.

Turkalj thinks his wife, who is originally from Germany, will like Omaha.

“I liked San Francisco because it reminded me of most parts of Europe,” he said. “But I think my wife will like Omaha because Askarben Village looks just like Germany.”

For Milovan, who admitted he has enjoyed eating like an American, when his 90 days is up he plans to return to Croatia to continue running the four-man development team.

“This is an international product, so the plan is to have teams on both continents,” he said. “We’ll have sales and operations in the U.S. and development in Croatia.”

They have a great plan in place, but if they have learned anything through this process, it’s the need for capital. Right now both Turkalj and Milovan still have to work side gigs to fund Business Exchange. They hope Turkalj’s move to Omaha and building on the connections they made over their time here will be enough to fuel funding.

In the meantime, they can look to Jim and Ryan White for inspiration. Jim, 58, and Ryan, 27, are father and son, and co-owners of HuntForce, one of the seven businesses chosen. HuntForce is a software company for hunters that allows them to manage their property by tracking and collecting data about the game that lives on it.

Unlike the six other companies who await their funding fate at the end of the 90 days, Jim and Ryan have already received more than $400,000 from investors and are oversubscribed. Their pitch on Demo Day won’t carry the same burden as the other six companies, but for Jim the night won’t be an easy one either.

Jim, Ryan’s father, is still working on coming out of his box. His biggest challenge thus far has been that and speaking in public, he said. But his journey here has been motivation.

Jim and Ryan sold their homes, quit their jobs and drove 10 hours from Louisville, Ky. to Omaha for the accelerator. Before ever venturing to Omaha, the two decided that if they came for 90 days, they might as well come for good.

Ryan had been an entrepreneur graduating high school. Shortly after his graduation he opened a car detailing business. He gave college a try, but dropped out after his freshman year.

“I could barely make it through the second semester,” Ryan said. “I wasn’t satisfied with the corporate grind.”

However, Jim was not an entrepreneur at heart. Having spent nearly 35 years in manufacturing, all he knew was the daily grind. But in 2008, at a time when the economy was awful, Jim was worried about losing his retirement.

Jim and Ryan sought startup ideas. The only thing Jim knew more about than manufacturing was hunting. His hunting expertise dates back generations and generations, Jim said. In 2008, Jim and Ryan took a shot at starting a business, but failed. They attempted to start one again in 2010, but failed once more.

“Our investors lost faith,” Jim said. “We didn’t have anything – no money, no business.”

Instead of quitting, they gave it one last try. They met with hunters throughout Louisville and got advice from mentors. After meeting with a number of hunters, the Whites decided to create HuntForce.

“We kept asking people about hunting issues and trial cameras kept coming up,” Jim said. “Hunters couldn’t get good pictures.”

With an idea in mind, Jim and Ryan applied to six accelerators. They were hoping to get accepted by an accelerator in Kentucky, but Straight Shot accepted them. Once accepted, Jim did something he hadn’t done in 34 years. He quit his job.

“In that business (manufacturing) you don’t quit, so I had never quit a job,” Jim said. “But if felt good and they were all supportive.”

Ryan gave his detail business to a family member. And Both Jim and Ryan’s wives quit their jobs.

The men have seen great success, but it too has not come without sacrifice. Since moving to Omaha in July, Jim’s wife has spent most of that time in New York caring for an ill family member. Just one month into Ryan and his wife’s stay, his father-in-law passed away.

Still, the men are thirsty and will stake out at their office in the Scott Technology Center just as everyone else. They know what it is like to have failed, having failed twice before coming to Omaha. But they are the frontrunners. They are proof of what can happen in a city like Omaha, with a man like Hasebrook, with a program like Straight Shot and with a couple of entrepreneurs willing to risk it all.

“You don’t get these connections any other way,” Ryan said. “We’re a real company now.”

As Jim and Ryan sit at the table in the open office space at the Scott Technology Center plotting out where their already-invested money will go, Turkalj, Milovan and the other 9 businessmen continue to work on their pitch in anticipation of Demo Day.

posted at 05:42 pm
on Monday, September 23rd, 2013

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