You've probably never heard of Spreetail -- and that's by design.

The 9-year-old e-commerce company has purposely operated under the radar as it refined its business model several times and sought to keep a low profile in a very competitive industry.

But the Lincoln-based company is having a coming-out party of sorts, wanting to let the community know of its ambitious plans, which include a new name, a new corporate headquarters, hundreds of jobs and, potentially, a billion dollars in revenue by 2022.

"We're getting to the point where we feel like we can get to the next level," said Vitali Lapko, the company's founder.

New name, new digs

On the last Friday in September, the executives at Spreetail shut down the business for a few hours in the afternoon and loaded all the company's employees -- more than 100 of them -- onto buses.

The employees were told they were taking a tour of previous locations the company had called home, and that's what they did at first. But eventually, the buses took them to the Innovation Commons building at Nebraska Innovation Campus.

Once they were assembled outside, company CEO Brett Thome stood on a concrete bench and announced this would be the company's new home.

Cheers went up from the assembled employees, but more was in store.

After the group filed into the building and up the stairs to see what will eventually become their second-floor space, they got another piece of news. The company that for several years had been known as VMInnovations would now be known as Spreetail.

Small start, big dreams

Lapko came to the United States from the former Soviet republic of Belarus in 1998 to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

He got an undergraduate degree in finance and then stayed to work on an MBA.

While going to graduate school, he started selling items on eBay, his first introduction to the world of e-commerce.

Through an acquaintance, Lapko was introduced to a contact at IBM who got him access to the company's auctions of computers that were coming off corporate leases. He started buying large lots of computers, refurbishing them and selling them online, which led to the birth of LapkoSoft.

By 2006, Lapko and a partner who is no longer involved in the business had renamed it VMInnovations, expanded from their basement to a 9,000-square-foot warehouse and grown to $2.4 million in revenue. They also hired their first employee, Jeff Rapp, who is now one of the top executives at the company.

From there, the company grew rapidly.

* In 2007, revenue more than doubled, to $6.2 million.

* In 2008, the year now-CEO Thome joined the company, it branched into selling other products online.

* By 2010, the company had grown to 20 employees and revenue was up to $23 million, nearly a 1,000 percent increase since 2006.

But things really took off in 2011. That's when VMInnovations decided to open a second distribution center in Las Vegas, and Lapko moved there to oversee it. Revenue more than doubled that year to $48 million.

Fast forward to 2015, and the company is up to 108 employees and still growing, with revenue expected to hit about $140 million this year.

It added another distribution center -- in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania -- and plans to open another next spring in Indianapolis.

Lapko, though still the largest shareholder in the company, has stepped back from day-to-day management. Spreetail is now led by Thome, the CEO, and three other top executives.

Startup feel

Spreetail looks a lot like many other startup tech companies.

The staff is mostly young, and the atmosphere is casual, with couches strategically placed around the office and most people wearing jeans or shorts along with company T-shirts.

Of the four people on the executive management team, only Rapp is older than 30. Thome, a Nebraska Wesleyan University graduate, is 28.

The business offers lots of cool perks, too, such as free lunches, stock appreciation rights to all employees and annual company-paid trips to places like San Diego and Charleston, South Carolina.

But Spreetail also is decidedly different from other startups.

It never took on any outside investors, instead growing slowly and methodically and keeping all the equity within the company.

It also isn't in a hip location such as the Haymarket. The Spreetail office is in an old manufacturing and warehouse building near the airport, a place that used to house a company making garden hoses.

All that is about to change, however.

Moving to Innovation Campus

While operating under the radar has been great for Spreetail from a business perspective, it hasn't been so great from a recruiting perspective, Lapko said.

The company expects to add several dozen new employees each year, but many prospective employees have never heard of the company.

They also have a misconception about what jobs are available. While Spreetail does have jobs in customer service and its warehouses, it also needs business development specialists.

And the company designs all its own software -- everything from running its website to planning out the logistics of delivery -- so it needs software developers and designers as well.

While Lapko was quick to praise current employees, saying the company has an "awesome team," he also admitted that it has been a struggle to attract top local talent.

In looking for a new headquarters, he said, "We didn't just need a new location, we needed an awesome location."

Spreetail believes it has found that in the renovated 4-H Building on the former State Fair Park.

The space on the second floor of the Innovation Commons building is 16,000 square feet, nearly double the company's current office space of 9,000 square feet.

The area at Innovation Commons is an empty shell now, but Thome said the company hopes to have it built out and its office staff working there by sometime in the spring.

“The transition to Nebraska Innovation Campus will continue to propel us to becoming a major player in online retail," he said. "There are three things we really care about, our customers, our team and our community. Our new office will benefit all three of those.”

Of the company's 108 employees, about 60 work in the corporate offices.

Thome said the Innovation Campus space has room for about 200 people, giving the company a few years to grow before it will need more space.

Innovation Campus officials are happy to have what to date will be its largest tenant in terms of employees.

“We look forward to the energy and innovation that the Spreetail team will bring to NIC," said Executive Director Dan Duncan.

The future looks bright

Though it's making big announcements now, Spreetail expects it to be a few years before its grand plans come to fruition.

For now, it will continue to keep its head down, as it has for the past decade.

Thome said its website will continue to operate as VMInnovations, and the Spreetail name will be used mostly for recruiting.

The company plans to slowly ramp up its capabilities to ensure it can handle what it expects will be a rush of business in a few years.

Right now it does about 5,000 transactions a day -- double that around the holidays. Its four distribution centers are mostly not automated and are run by small staffs.

Thome said he expects to get to 150 employees next year and 200 by the end of 2017, with revenue hitting $200 million either next year or the year after.

That kind of controlled growth is vital, he said.

"If we double (business) next year, it's not a good thing," Thome said.

Spreetail is tiny compared with e-commerce giants such as eBay and Amazon, and sees a huge opportunity to grow.

Online sales in the U.S. have been growing about 15 percent a year on average in the U.S. since 2010 and are projected to continue to grow at a double-digit annual clip for the foreseeable future.

"Growth will come from more people going online and us continuing to expand our product selection," Thome said.

Another positive, he said, is that e-commerce is not a cheap business to get into, and it's not likely to see new competitors in the space.

"Where e-commerce is now, you can't join," Thome said. "We're far enough along, we passed the hurdle. The e-commerce companies that are left are the ones that are going to be it."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.


Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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