Protempo has just inked a major "reverse logistics and refurbishment" deal with Sphero, the trendy US maker of robotic Star Wars toys licensed from Disney.

Things weren't always so heady.

"I bumbled around for the first few years, not really knowing how to run a business," says Protempo founder Adam Brown.

His company, founded in 2004, was originally called FirstIn, and ran a daily deal site of the same name.

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The business started to hit its straps a couple of years later in 2006, when Eftpos NZ founder Mark Thomson came onboard.

The pair found a rich vein of business parallel importing consumer electronics from the US. Most notably the pair sold Amazon Kindles and Apple iPads to The Warehouse Group, which, for a brief spell in 2012, offered killer prices on both gadgets

FirstIn - which would rename itself Protempo - moved its focus from retail to wholesale, supplying two deal sites - 1Day (part of the Torpedo7 group) and the Shane Bradley-founded GrabOne.

After both customers were snapped by bigger fish over the next couple of years (GrabOne was sold to NZ Herald publisher NZME and Torpedo7 to The Warehouse Group), Brown moved his focus to the US.

From a base in LA, he has quietly evolved Protempo into a major player in what's known as the "reverse logistics" business.

When companies produce too much stock or have end-of-life product on their hands, they turn to companies like Protempo to offload it.

Protempo is also in the "refurb" business, taking product that customers have returned because of minor defects - or simply because they took an option to return it within 30 days if they didn't like it - repackaging it then selling online.

Sphero's smartphone-controlled BB-8 droid. Photo / Supplied
Sphero's smartphone-controlled BB-8 droid. Photo / Supplied

Protempo has deals with Apple, Microsoft, Nest (the home security hardware line owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet), Jabra, Lenovo, Amazon (for its Kindle e-readers and Echo speakers) and now Sphero.

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He says it's a surprisingly complex business, involving the navigation of California's strict recycling laws around repackaging plus regulations and regulations around the certification of "refurb" product.

Brown says Protempo has developed a good reputation because it is one of the few players to actually take surplus product "out of the channel". That is, taking it out of the US market and selling it in Europe.

Inside Protempo's LA facility.
Inside Protempo's LA facility.

In the US, it's illegal to sell refurbished product as new, so Protempo manages the process of selling it online on behalf of its clients. Protempo's store on Amazon, which it uses to flick on refurbished products (and which trades under a different brand name), will do around $40 million in business this calendar year, he says.

All up, Protempo's revenue will be in the $80m to $120m range this year, he says.

On top of the Sphero deal, a major expansion of Protempo's contract with Apple is on the cards.

Brown says Protempo's revenue roughly doubled last year, when the company was number two (behind Xero) in the "Masters of Growth" section of the Deloitte Fast 50 (a new section of the index for more established companies).

Sphero product being processed at Protempo's facility in LA.
Sphero product being processed at Protempo's facility in LA.

He says his company now employs around 70 staff. The majority are in the US, but Protempo is still registered in NZ (although he now lives in LA, Brown is still on a working visa; he hopes to get a green card next year).

Brown says the company has always been profitable and has never taken on any outside investment.

That could change shortly.

The founder says he's talking to private equity players with an eye on a possible capital raise next year to accelerate growth.

The funds would be used in part to bankroll expansion into Europe, Brown says.