After living and working all over the world, Vicenco Matijaca returned to Croatia last year where he founded startup BioCro — an online platform which connects buyers and suppliers of sustainable and environmentally friendly products or services.
Although only 31 years of age, Vicenco has crammed in a lot of experiences already. From sleeping it rough at train stations in Zagreb, to delivering bread for Russians and taking headshot photos for young actors in New York, there is not much that Vicenco has not done.
We caught up with him to find out more about BioCro, his origin story, and also his thoughts on the business climate in Croatia and what he would like to see change.
Vicenco, you were born in Split on the Dalmatian coast and grew up in nearby Kaštela. Can you tell us how it was for you growing up in the 1990s.
Yes, I was born in the most beautiful city in the world in Split and grew up right next to it in Kaštela. I must say I was very lucky as a child growing up in a middle class family with all the beauties this Adriatic region had to offer. Before the technology age we were all just kids – happy kids. I enjoyed a childhood full of friends, beaches, memories and many wild times as well as the love I received from my family and all other necessities a child should have. A big thank you to them.
It is this love I received as a child that is fuelling every single day and every action I make. No excuses to fail.
As I was a rather hyperactive child it was not an easy gig to raise me. A 24/7 job making sure I do not do something stupid which in most cases I did anyway. I still do. Although both of my parents were active in raising me, the role of ‘CEO’ went to my mother who to this day is the strongest, most consistent, kindest and most humble person I have ever met. The silent one that sits in the corner but never failed in giving all her love.
Thank you to Jadranka Matijaca for being my best friend and to all the mothers out there doing their best. You can not imagine how love and a kind word you give to your child will and can act as a shield and protect that individual from many bad decisions and paths one may take. The smallest actions of love acts as the strongest trigger in life.
What is your education background?
Upon completing primary school I managed to attend the School for Natural Sciences in Split where I obtained an Environmental Technician diploma. Even at this point I was a lucky guy as it is crucial at in your teens that you surround yourself with proactive, progressive, positive and loving people.
Those four years I will always keep close to my heart as I enjoyed every moment surrounded by exceptional young people with whom I am in touch with over social media up to this day.
I tried to attend the University for Natural Sciences in Zagreb —Prirodoslovno Matematički Fakultet — but I failed due to the lack of preparation and interest and tried the same university in Split which I barely made, I think I was the last one on the list. I literally attended for two days and listened to the introduction by the Dean and left – that was it.
Later in life I managed to obtain a diploma — a 2-year online program — from B.H.M.S — Business and Hotel Management School in Switzerland — a Certification from a one year program from the Cornell University in the US for international Leadership, a diploma for Hospitality Management from AHLEI — American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute — and a few other relatively important certifications and recognitions in crisis management, entertainment operations, crowd management and similar from different corporations and companies that I worked for.
You have worked a number of jobs and had some interesting experiences around the world after moving out of home.
Although my first job was at the age of 14 selling newspapers for 24sata in Split, which was followed by summer jobs as a waiter during high school, the real quest started at 18 when I left my parents home in search for my own life.
I worked as an entertainer, receptionist and waiter along the Croatian coast from Makarska, Split, through Zadar and Istra.
Working for companies like Maistra d.d in Vrsar and Rovinj, Love Carpe Diem in Zadar, Zaton Resort and later Samarcanda. I met wonderful people and experienced incredible moments with both co-workers and guests.
But these were only summer jobs and I had to figure out what will I be doing during winter time which is when I was in Zagreb doing all kinds of things. For some I was getting paid and for some I wasn’t which is when I experienced hunger for the first time and homelessness and sleeping in storage spaces and train stations.
A wonderful gentleman gave me a job at that point working in a cafe in the Zagreb suburb of Trešnjevka. I managed to get back on my feet with tips and start to think what’s next.
My decisions was between joining the French Foreign Legion or trying cruise ships. I’m thankful for selecting the latter due to the advice I received from my parents. Somehow they figured out I was up to no good again.
This is when I joined NCL — Norwegian Cruise Line — and managed to not get fired for over 2 months. The cruise industry policy states there should be no unprofessional interaction between staff and guests. Well, I met a beautiful girl from Israel. The romance lasted for 3 days, she went home from vacation and I went home from work. I remember calling my mom from Barcelona after a few days of roaring through Las Ramblas and asking if I can crash in the city of Rijeka with her mom and dad, my grandparents.
Although they are not with us anymore they are one of the people I look up to the most and how I imagine love and relationships should look like.
They went through many wars, they lost a child, experienced depression and poverty on a whole different level but never failed to respect each other and to show love to each other after more than 50 years of life together. May they rest in peace forever and thank you for all the love, compassion, knowledge and support you gave me.
After a few months there I managed to join RCI — Royal Caribbean International — and had been a successful employee for over a year before a similar thing happened. I met this beautiful Russian girl with whom I decided to move to New York City.
During this experience I lived in Sheepshead bay in Brooklyn, Astoria in Queens and East 110th Street. For work I used to deliver bread for the Russians, take headshot photos of young actors who just came to NYC — mostly in Central Park — and worked in Delmonico’s Kitchen in Midtown Manhattan.
I even managed to get casted as an extra for Person of Interest (S2E15) that aired on Valentine’s Day 2013, and I got a small role in the off-Broadway musical called Gayuranus as well as renting our sofa for backpackers through couchsurfing and selling stuff over Craigslist.
After a year we were still barely making it so we decided to head back to RCI.
This experience lasted for years and due to the never-ending energy I invested and love I had for my job and the people I was surrounded by I moved through the ranks quickly eventually getting promoted for the first time to a division head position called the Cruise Director at age 24.
Since then I moved to assistant director and director on several occasions. Being the youngest and first Croatian — I think — in that position. I had wonderful experiences and a relatively high level of responsibility where I was leading teams of 200+ individuals from over 40 countries. I would like to use this opportunity to thank Royal Caribbean International for all the knowledge, training and education received. I learned so much from you and experienced memories that I will cherish for as long as I live.
But you can guess what happened next — I met this smart, beautiful girl and went to Canada where I experienced more education and experience in the region of Alberta. I ran an environmentally friendly landscaping and gardening business that lasted for as long as I was there but just like everything else in life – it all has an expiration date.
After Canada you returned to Croatia but left again.
I came back to Croatia where I entered self-discovery mode amongst other things that I entered that are not praiseworthy but necessary to heal. Living in different hotels, motels and hostels in Croatia where I met a real good friend who owns Hostel Old Lab in downtown Zagreb — which I highly recommend for comfort and convenience and well as the wonderful service. This is when the BioCro idea was growing as I was writing the business plan for it.
In early 2020, I moved to the United Kingdom to set up a small hotel for operation when the pandemic started. I spent a few months in the UK and eventually successfully prepared the establishments for post pandemic operation while registering the company and gathering necessary financials together with my co-founder Jure ivandić.
Also at this time I am entering other businesses and investing in cryptocurrency, renewable energy and the hospitality industry.
I returned to Split for the summer where I experienced some personal and professional fails — some because of me and some because of necessity — before moving to Zagreb to continue growing our business and expanding our contact network.
What was the trigger for starting BioCro?
BioCro was cooking inside me for a very long time. Throughout my experience I have come to understand that I truly like people. All kinds of people with all kinds of ideas from all kinds of places across the world.
I enjoyed catering to businesses and individuals throughout my life and it always brought a smile to my face when I witnessed that my actions made someone else smile or made their day in the smallest possible way better.
For my 10th birthday I received a little booklet from my sister with a note: “To my wild brother, do whatever your heart desires as long as you try not hurting others along the way, I love you.”
And although I failed many times with this particular personal quest I’m thinking maybe this was the trigger!? Or maybe not! We want to make BioCro just that – a place that caters to your needs while not harming others or the environment. As simple as that.
So I had this ambitious project, dream, a lot of energy and a few pennies but I was missing someone with a specific set of skills.
I needed someone who is more analytical, a financial expert and someone who is not afraid to dream big, fail hard and keep pushing. This is when my dear friend Jure Ivandić steps in as co-founder and brings all his expertise and knowledge in creating financial forecasts and supporting every other aspect of the operation.
Taking into consideration the fact that not only Croatia but Europe in general missed boarding the digital revolution it does not come as a surprise that people are reacting with doubt on such ambitious projects. And let us not fool ourselves for one single moment as this is truly a “whale” that we have on our hands and most likely it will fail if we do not come across the necessary support.
How are things going so far with BioCro?
Although BioCro is a year old and is just exiting it’s market research year we have managed to successfully conduct 272 international sales, negotiate renewable energy hardware installation, offer educational services, promote and conduct sales of sustainable tours and excursions and initiate partnerships with 42 other medium and small businesses.
We have managed to achieve this while running on our demo platform as our main product (the platform) is still under development and this is where we need others to take interest in.
BioCro is aiming to develop an international ecosystem where people come to educate themselves and earn certifications that will help them open and run their businesses, trade in products that guarantee sustainability from production through transportation to consumption, explore the world through our tours and events and invest in renewable energy while benefiting areas in need across the globe.
To develop the best loyalty program you have ever seen — I am not joking — while ensuring every point is reinvested in “greater” things — properly.
To develop a site where every purchase is much more than a simple personal gain. Due to the lack of drive of certain teams we have cancelled three platform projects as nothing came even close to the image and ease we have outlined to the hired experts, and lost thousands — this catapulted us financially back to ‘Wurm’.
We are not setting up our business on traditional revenue streams but rather on natural flow where each party is benefitting from the previous trade and earning points that are creating a hub of knowledge, profit and value.
Is all this a dreamer project? It is if one person is dreaming about it but if many join it becomes our reality and a gateway to a more sustainable future for the next generation.
In addition to that we have started writing plans and looking for funding for a physical school for cosmology and astronomy in Croatia. The country has so much potential and so so many bright young minds that could be pushing boundaries globally but this is just on paper at this point.
But my main vision and idea is still to be revealed although for that one to work the previous business need to be successful and if not I won’t mind starting from scratch and doing some good ol’ hard work.
What are your business philosophies and what do you think makes a great leader?
You gotta love it! Whatever it is that you do try to love it or try to fall in love with it. Go deep into problems of your tasks and responsibilities and do not allow your precious grey cells to die over time. Make every day interesting, every challenge captivating and keep moving forward.
Get out of your comfort zone, switch, exchange, move, grow, test your limits and don’t be afraid to fail as the worst thing you can do is complain from your living room sofa while talking about others and judging their moves while not doing anything.
It doesn’t matter if you are 15, 40 or 70 if you love something do it.
The island of Okinawa has many people over the age of 100 so when they were asked what was their longevity and vitality secret they said: IKIGAI. IKIGAI is their word for a life filled with purpose and joy. Find your purpose and keep moving forward.
And I would like to add how it is important not to force it so you can be better than the other girl/guy. These days everyone is a life expert and coach and telling you how you must push yourself. Our refrigerators are filled with positive notes and our music library with motivation speeches but many are dying on the inside.
If you feel bad — FEEL BAD until it’s over. Let yourself heal but keep an eye on the time. When you are ready and charged — explode!
Do not do it for the money, do it for the love and it will always work out somehow. But this one is easier said than done because to apply this you need to be fed and warm.
When It comes to leadership I sincerely believe that you are as good as your last task. In such a fast paced environment it’s important that you do not glorify yourself with previous achievements as this is food for your ego. Strive to make your surroundings better with small tasks, pick up the corona paper mask from the road and throw it in the closest trash bin and you have your first leadership certificate. I do not feel comfortable to call myself a good leader but I will strive to make my colleagues and my work speak good about my leadership techniques.
How many staff do you employ?
At this point we have 2 active staff in Croatia, 2 in the United Kingdom and 1 in Austria while we have employed in the meantime 19 staff members that were either PPT (Paid per task) or on a short term contract.
One of your workers told us you are inspiring Croatians to stay in Croatia by leading by example. What is your advice to young people in the country?
Very kind of you, thank you to whoever described me like that and for seeking such advice from me. Advising young people is a rather difficult task as things are changing very quickly but we can always look back at the good ol’ advices. Work hard, prepare for everything and expect nothing. By not expecting much we are minimising chances of disappointment, anxiety, depression and depending solely on our own energy input.
Remember that nobody owes you anything. You woke up, you are breathing which means you have the obligation to make your surroundings a little bit better for tomorrow.
I understand it’s hard with an incredible amount of pressure that seems to be growing daily but on the end of the day it’s all a matter of how you decide to look at it. Get up and go get whatever you are looking for.
You lived abroad in many countries, what do you see as advantages operating a business in Croatia?
I visited over 70 countries across 5 continents and lived in a few of them and I managed to find beauty wherever I went but it seems that in Croatia I never had to look for it. It’s everywhere.
Croatia is a young, fresh country with centuries of culture. I mean it’s the perfect combination for everything. It’s like Dorian Grey without the portrait.
Your risk is STILL not that expensive in Croatia as you can always figure out a way to get out of a situation caused by a bad business decision. A small country where people are kind, wonderful and helpful.
Most of the world is not that kind to an individual and repeating mistakes or making bad decisions will scar you for life. You can have your freedom for as long as you pay your bills but as soon as you miss a payment…bye bye freedom while in Croatia there is always a grandma with some soup, a cousin with transportation or a friend with a bed to crash in.
Next thing you know you are back on your feet and ready to try again so use this opportunity while we still have it and if you have a vision surround yourself with positivity and good people and try it out.
In my case there was Marko Ivandić. A lifelong friend who stood by my side through many high points and even more low points. When I was signing major business deals and going through severe depression, when I was cruising Sicily coastline on a boat or sleeping on Zagreb train station, Marko was there through support, laughter, motivation. Thank you for your kindness, friendship and support.
Are you involved in any other businesses in Croatia?
Yes, I am involved with small investments in a few bars and restaurants. In addition to that I have invested in two Croatian innovative startups that are not public yet. Occasionally working as an external associate for two real estate companies and amateur external associate for a Croatian lifestyle portal.
I am still thinking about entering the crypto world after a few minor wins with shocking surges of DOGE COIN but I do not know much about this field so if any of the readers has an advice I am all ears.
What would you like to see change in Croatia to help entrepreneurs?
Where to start? I’ll just mention what I believe is priority number one.
We must demand more from the people that are serving us. And I would like to emphasise the word serving. Making them accountable for current challenges we face as a society and for improving our quality of life. Being a public servant is a noble position but it’s not royalty and at some point it seems that the government officials are elevating themselves to unrealistic highs without accountability.
We all have the obligation to act faster and better. We must change if we want the conditions to change. We must demand results and if results are not met we must seek for payment for the time and energy that was wasted.
We have volunteered through Volonterski Centar Zagreb in the region of Čučerje and witnessed how little was invested in assisting those people after the March 2020 earthquake.
Downtown Zagreb was interesting but Čučerje not as much for the media which resulted in minimal effort invested.
There are mothers and their children who up to this point are afraid to go to sleep in their home that was severely damaged but they have no other options. Who is assisting? Who is accountable? Who is responsible?
Solution: The government has 24 hours to find a solution and better options. Failure will result in immediate penalties. Maybe too strict but necessary because we are talking about children who do not have the basic security to grow. Those kids will be competing with children from all over the world in a few years and will be representing Croatia. We must be strict.
If we approach challenges like that together you will see how fast it will all change. A group of people can do wonders together and if we are doing it for the right reasons only the sky is the limit. But we must stick together. We must stop posting those sad hateful comments over social media on stories we know nothing about but the article that was presented to us.
We must go together and demand accountability.
Do you think Croatian businesses can attract overseas investment?
At this point I believe the investment pace if going at an optimal rate. We are slowly opening up to many possibilities but we must not forget that attracting investment is just a small part of this development quest. The idea is to use those investments for the betterment of all and secure high ROI’s to the investors otherwise we won’t be seeing them for long.
With the new digital nomad visa we will see even more opportunities but let’s prepare for them and use those investments wisely so they keep coming. Securing long term investments with high ROI’s from different sectors should be the plan. It is crucial that we build the tourism and hospitality sector as a secondary profit sector and focus on innovative solutions and products that serve the environment and the people.
Keep in mind that many more challenging situations are coming and if anything is certain it is constant change which is why our investments should serve the people and our home Planet Earth.
Taking into consideration the size of our country we do not want to flood the entire nation with foreign money because that will come with a price tag and the cost will be national identity loss.
We must be careful with the pace we are moving forward and must have our desires controlled for the sake of the next generation. Investments are sufficient for now and everyone has access who has the will.
Are you positive about the future in Croatia?
If we play our cards right Croatia holds a beautiful future for all our and foreign people.Its rich history full of struggle and pain, the lives that were given for our stunning nation to bloom, for our mountains to stand proud and for our oceans to protect the shores our mothers raised us on.
We must do the best we can to demand for better management, we must do our part. Not comment or complaint or judge but take action. It is very hard and it will take many sacrifices to realise a dream, a job or a vision but we owe it those before us.
Let’s focus on Slavonija, on Lika, on Neretva, on Posavina or Dalmacija. Let’s make Istria the most desired location in the world and hear the children laugh again through the golden fields of Slavonia.
It’s possible if we can imagine it.
You can find out more about BioCro here.