March 25, 2015 was a day that Jeremy Greene will never forget. It was the day Mark Zuckerberg went all-in on his company.
At Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Zuckerberg announced the latest iteration of Facebook Messenger. It included a direct integration of PingTank, the social-media app Greene created that lets users customize photos with animation overlays. Overnight, PingTank was on 600 million mobile devices. The app is regularly touted by celebrities like Tyga, Akon and Mel B., and is backed by legendary venture capitalist Tim Draper.
It’s a story torn from the script of The Social Network: Brilliant software engineer goes from reject to red carpet after his app takes the world by storm.
Except for one tiny detail. Make that several tiny details.
Jeremy Greene isn’t an engineer. He barely graduated high school. He grew up in Waterville, Maine, not Silicon Valley. And a year before the F8 announcement, he was living in a trailer park, on his last five borrowed dollars. He spent his formative years lost in the foster system. “They took me away because my mom couldn’t care for me and put me in a kid’s shelter,” Greene says of his troubled upbringing.
Despite his struggles, he conceived, built and launched PingTank -- and then sold Facebook on his vision -- without spending a day in the shoes of the tech elite.
Greene’s meteoric rise from Salem’s Lot to Silicon Valley was achieved through extraordinary hustle and deathless determination, irresistible salesmanship and a team he hired of mad geniuses who work and live out of the “PingTank mansion” in Hollywood (not Silicon Valley)—where the team’s latest marketing stunt involved Greene getting “arrested,” a helicopter and an impromptu performance by Tyga.
His speed, unconventionality and boldness make him dangerous to competitors and have brought in millions in venture capital for the young company. His latest move? He made 12-year-old Sammy Parsley PingTank’s VP of youth marketing. It’s just one example of how Greene acts instantly on things you’ll see everyone else hesitate at.
“Jeremy is a force of nature who creates value out of thin air and runs through brick walls that stop others in their tracks. And that’s exactly the kind of person investors like me like to back,” says Rafe Furst, co-founder of Crowdfunder and a PingTank investor.
The school of hard knocks
Jeremy’s hustle, salesmanship and knack for leveraging star talent came from some lessons learned in the school of hard knocks. When he was 15, his mother relinquished her possession of him to the state. He tried to run away and the state put him in juvenile prison.
“You’re in your boxers in a room with no windows that’s freezing cold and smells like piss,” says Greene.
When he got out of juvie, a series of positive role models helped him get an education (he’s the first in his family to graduate high school) and move into his own place. He started working on his lifelong dream: music. “I realized music was my only way out, and I started using technology to get there,” Greene says.
His timing was perfect. Before the days of 10-second messages and live-streaming video, MySpace was king, especially among musicians and their fans. So Greene started creating music and uploading it to the social-networking site. His popularity grew fast -- a little too fast. People started distributing his music illegally instead of paying for it. One day, he confronted a hacker who was giving his tracks away.
“The hacker said, ‘Look, I’m actually helping you. I’m putting your music out into the world,’” Greene says.
Most people would thrash back. But Greene was hustling to survive; he wanted the most exposure possible.
“I asked him, ‘If you can hack my page, can you also hack MySpace?’” The answer was yes. Greene convinced the hacker to promote his already popular music further by gaming the MySpace algorithm. In one of those anecdotes that seems less strange the more you get to know Greene, MySpace didn’t shut him down; they offered him a record deal.
“MySpace said, ‘We know you’re hacking us, but we don’t know how, and we can't prove it. But your music is so good, we’d like to sign you,’” Greene says. He met with the head of MySpace’s record label, and walked out with a deal.
What followed was massive popularity on the social-networking site and a record deal with mega-producer Diddy, who found Greene through the site. Greene soon was collaborating with will.i.am, Pitbull, Chris Brown and LMFAO.
But the success didn’t last. He parted ways with his record label and, eventually, went broke. His friends stopped calling. And prospective record deals dried up. He couldn’t afford his own place, so a friend bankrolled his rent at a trailer park while he worked on revitalizing his music career.
“I just knew there was something bigger for me,” Greene says, when asked why he didn’t just quit. “I knew something would eventually happen if I kept going.”
He was right. Something did happen. Greene saw a movie about the world’s youngest billionaire.
Building a better social network
Greene and his longtime friend (now PingTank CTO) Derek Myska watched The Social Network late one night in 2012 and realized they’d found their rocket ship.“ After watching The Social Network, I instantly knew we had to build something,” Greene says. He went to bed that night on fire with the idea of starting his own company—and woke up with the idea for PingTank fully formed after having a dream about it, he says.
PingTank was born. Greene envisioned it as a new way for people to communicate. While users could "like" content on Facebook, there weren’t many creative ways for them to vividly express themselves through photos. PingTank wanted to change that. The app allows users to choose from hundreds of animations and lay them over photos on Facebook Messenger, iOS, Android and apps like Instagram. Users can “ping” the creation (the app’s version of the “like” button) or “tank” it if they dislike the photo.
Myska, who has a computer-science degree, built the app. Greene, already a master promoter, sold it along with their third co-founder Christopher Dawes, who did event promotion. PingTank attracted 2,500 users in the first few weeks after launch through an email list Greene had from his MySpace days. And that’s when the trio knew they were onto something.
There was just one problem: They were all broke. Success wasn’t just the best option, it was the only option.
Salvation came in an unlikely form. Greene connected with acclaimed music producer Lars Halvor Jensen on, of all things, Facebook by cold messaging him about his producing career. They bonded over music and set up a Skype call to talk further.
“The first time I Skyped with Lars, I’m sitting wrapped in a blanket,” Greene says. “He asked me what was going on, and I told him I had nothing.” Greene’s heat in his trailer had been turned off, and he couldn’t pay to turn it back on. Jensen immediately sent him money to survive.
The music producer didn’t just invest in Greene, he invested in PingTank. He’s now the company’s President and CFO. With Jensen on board and cash in the bank, Greene turned his sights on a man he knew could turn his social-network dream into a Silicon Valley reality.
'You’re probably looking at the founder of the next Facebook.'
In one of his trademark bold moves, Greene cold emailed legendary venture capitalist Tim Draper. He got Draper’s email by reverse engineering his secretary’s email address and plugging in Tim’s name instead of hers.
Just 20 minutes later, Draper invited him to come pitch the company in-person at his entrepreneur accelerator program, Draper University.
There was only one problem: The pitch was happening the next day in Palo Alto, Calif.
“I told Lars that Tim wanted to meet with us. The very next day.” Greene says. “And we were on the other side of the country in Maine. But Lars said, ‘You get one shot.’ We had nothing: no presentation and barely a website.”
Jensen stayed up all night writing a business plan and putting his own unique spin on their pitch to appeal to Draper’s unconventional ways. (For example, he has had people do jumping jacks or give high-fives before pitching.)
The PingTank mascot was a penguin, so Jensen rented a penguin costume and picked Greene and Myska up from the airport wearing it (nearly getting arrested by airport security in the process). They drove straight to where Draper was, and wearing a penguin suit Jensen stood beside Greene as he pitched one of the world’s most prominent venture capitalists in front of a room of young entrepreneurs.
“I told my story, that I had just come from a trailer. I was honest,” says Greene. The team’s passion, honesty and commitment to standing out from the crowd paid off.
“When I was done, Tim turned to everyone in the room and said ‘You’re probably looking at the founder of the next Facebook,’” Greene recalls.
Draper should know. He passed on an early opportunity to invest in Facebook. But he didn’t make the same mistake with PingTank. He invested right after Greene’s pitch.
“I told Tim, ‘I don’t need your money, I need you.’ I knew that once I had Tim, I could get everybody,” says Greene. He meant it. With Draper as an investor, Greene sold everyone from celebrities to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (thanks to Draper’s connections) on the app.
Most seem to see what Draper does. “PingTank has the potential to allow a whole new brand of communication,” he says.
Draper’s involvement was just the beginning. PingTank has raised $2.2 million to date, has 17 employees and boasts over a million users.
Not everyone, however, is bullish on the company. One investor who passed on the company, Zachary Zeldin, said he isn’t sold on the company’s vision.
“We don’t believe that the influencers and partnerships that [PingTank is pursuing] will be as large of a driving force as [PingTank is making] them out to be,” Zeldin says.
It’s a valid concern. But it’s not slowing down Jeremy Greene or his vision for the company.
Greene has been the voice of the company since the beginning but that role is taking on new meaning. He’s rebooting his music career as a way to promote PingTank. He’s launching concerts on college campuses to spur student adoption of the app. He will also soon be rolling out a Snapchat competitor called ReallyYo. Like everything Greene does, you can be sure it’s going to be big.
After all, Greene did his time in the foster system and the trailer park. Now that those are behind him and the chains are off, he’s moving at a pace that makes even Silicon Valley look slow.