Gazzda furnitue is one of the hot new names on the style landscape. Two young men – one Dutch and the other Bosnian – founded the company and their business success is based on a personal friendship that goes back to the dark days of the Yugoslav war. Here they explain how a bond formed in school and a big idea led to their international furniture business.
“I met Zlatko when we were both nine years old,” Kenny begins. “His mom had just moved to the Netherlands with him and his sister, to escape the Bosnian War. He made his debut at my school on our annual Sports Day. I just saw him as some kind of strange outsider, but when he beat me at all the events, I figured I should keep a close eye on him.
“We became inseparable around the age of 12. We did everything together – football, high school, college, washing dishes at my father’s restaurant, serving food and drinks, selling ice-cream on the local lakes, cutting flowers… whatever we could do to fund our good times.
“But even back then, Zlatko had big plans. He knew he wanted to do something. Build something. Make a difference. One time on a bike ride to school, he talked about a business plan he wrote. This was during our third year of Dutch high school… we were about 15. The contents were a secret that he wouldn’t even share with his best friend.
“All I knew was that it had something to do with exporting goods from his home country – Bosnia and Herzegovina. I didn’t think he’d see it through. Especially considering he wasn’t doing all that well in class. ”
“It wasn’t necessarily easy to start a new life in the Netherlands as a foreign kid,” says Zlatko, “But I never had trouble starting new things. I was lucky to meet a great group of guys at school and on the football team – including Kenny – and it didn’t take long to feel comfortable there.
“In fact, we ended up staying in the Netherlands much longer than planned – long after the war had ended – because my sister and I were getting a great education and had amazing friends. But after college graduation, I returned to Bosnia. This was while Kenny flew off to be a bartender in the Dutch Antilles after throwing aside his promising career in Amsterdam.
“That lucky son of a gun. He invited me to come along, and I knew he made a smart choice. I was a bit jealous of him, but I said ‘no’ . There was just so much potential in my home country and I wanted to give the business idea Kenny just told about a chance. It’s true, from young age I believed that export should be my focus, because in my view, that was the way that the Bosnian economy could prosper – Bosnia is filled with quality craftsmen and incredible resources.
So I decided to commit to a long-term stay. To see if I could put the things I learned in the Netherlands into practice over here. Resourcefulness. Critical thinking and an ‘everything is possible’ attitude. As long as you give it your stinking best.”
“Our careers merged a few years later,” Kenny interjects. “I was back in Holland by then… the sandy beaches of the Antilles were just a memory. Zlatko was asked by a Bosnian furniture production to set up their Benelux sales channels, while I was losing a job I loved at an architectural firm.
The financial crisis had wiped out our business in 2009, and half of the staff was sacked on the same day. I went to the bar around the corner from my 12m2 Amsterdam ‘apartment’, to drown my sorrows. I thought there was no way I’d find a similar job in the current economy, and really had no idea what I was going to do. Then, in walks Zlatko, in for what I thought was a simple visit. I should have known he had a bigger plan up his sleeve… he always does.”
“I was busy with my work as a sales/export consultant in Sarajevo, but I thought Kenny would be the perfect partner to realize this new opportunity. He always beat me at selling ice-cream and we were always having the best of fun while working together.
“Kenny would set up the sales channels from The Netherlands, while I would organize the supply chain network from Bosnia. So I flew to Amsterdam with the sole intention of convincing him to quit his job, to take this position for the Benelux, and to team up. If anyone could make something great out of it, I knew he could.”
“Zlatko found me at that bar, half-drunk and completely miserable. When he found out I’d lost my job that very day, he got this huge smile on his face, and said it was the best news he’d ever heard. I thought that life back in Sarajevo had made my friend completely mad, until he told me about the new opportunity. And instead of me ending the night grouching, we were suddenly laughing and high-fiving and talking about finally fulfilling the dream we’d had since we were kids: to work together on something fantastic.”
“We worked on our project for several years – me in Sarajevo, Kenny in Amsterdam. But all the while, I just kept thinking: none of the furniture on the market really checked all the boxes. The beautiful stuff was unnecessarily expensive. The affordable stuff looked uninspired.
“With all of the talented designers I had gotten to know right here in Sarajevo, including Salih, I knew it could be done different. All we had to do was start from scratch, and use our imaginations. It was pretty easy to convince Kenny to move to Sarajevo and give it a shot. Especially seeing his Latina love adventure had just hit the rocks in A’dam. Right, Ken?”
“Haha. Let’s not go there, Zlat. But yes, it was an easy choice. When Zlatko told me about his ideas to start a design brand and introduced me to Salih and his fantastic work, I got enthusiastic immediately. Because while Zlatko is always looking at doing things uniquely on the product side with Salih and our Sarajevo team, I looked at it from the brand voice side.
“I always think to myself: ‘if people already see that you have a great product, why would you go on and on about it in jargon nobody understands?’ Why not make your brand about deeply rooted, but fun stuff? About our purpose? Contributing to good times. Laughter. Silly moments.
“Because isn’t that what it is all about? What we all strive for? To feel good? To do good, and to not take ourselves too seriously? Why else does everyone love the weekend so much, and holidays, hobbies, spending time with friends?
“But how could we connect those things to Gazzda? One day, after spending the first months in Zlatko’s sad, empty house in Sarajevo, homesickness struck me. More than ever before, because I knew I might be away from home for a very, very long time.
“I talked about it with Zlatko, asking him if he also had troubles shifting gears when he moved from our Dutch hometown to here. He told me he went through the same crisis, and in fact, he told me he never felt ‘at home’ anywhere on the planet. To this very day, his entire life.
“That is when we decided our brand would be about something that was important to the both of us, something we both search for, and that connects to the work we do with our entire team: helping people, from all kinds of different backgrounds and places, gain a sense of home. Not in a cheesy or overly spiritual way, but in a fun and carefree way. A perspective of life we both admire in people.”
“Yep. And I don’t cheat on our mission,” Zlatko replies. “I could’ve been filling my house with cool products from other brands I like, for years now. But I refuse. I only allow Gazzda pieces. If Gazzda doesn’t make it, I don’t have it. Because the empty spaces in those sad corners are my inspiration and drive to do more each day. To push our team harder. It is just the way I work.”
“And I admire that in you, Zlat. You are the spark that brought Gazzda to life, and the fire that pushes us further. Just don’t lose the mischievous Bond in you. Will you? We need that little rascal, too.”
“Of course, Ken. And don’t you dare go back to Holland. What would we do without our big Dutch softie?”