Wright State University business graduate Zach Strauss has come a long way from starting a marketing business in his one-bedroom apartment. That’s no surprise, though — he’s also come a long way from never hearing about Wright State to playing baseball for the Raiders to garnering high recognition for that business.
Strauss founded and is managing director of Grey Matter, which was named by the prestigious Inc. magazine as one of the fastest-growing companies in the Midwest for 2023 in its feature, “Meet the 203 Companies Making an Outsized Impact in the Midwest.”
In addition, the Cincinnati Business Courier recognized Grey Matter as the fastest-growing regional company among those generating revenues between $1 million and $5 million.
After graduating from Wright State in 2011 with a degree in marketing, Strauss immediately found work in a different field — mortgage banking. He moved into other finance and then sales jobs.
One job in particular stoked his fire of entrepreneurship. He returned to his native Toledo to help three young men with their software startup.
“While I was responsible for sales, at that stage of a company, everyone’s responsible for everything,” Strauss said. “It was an exhilarating and an awesome learning experience. I had a fantastic time working in the environment.”
He left that startup to join a digital innovation consulting firm in Cincinnati. Then in late 2016, he said, “I felt that I had an itch I had to scratch” and started his own business-to-business (B2B) marketing agency.
“I was exposed as a sales professional to very well-aligned sales and marketing departments and benefitted greatly from that,” he said. “I also had been in organizations where they said, ‘Go figure it out, good luck.’”
“What I realized was pretty simple — when sales get the right support from marketing, growth tends to come naturally in a company,” he said. “I figured with the way technology was democratizing access to everything, I could take the marketing best practices typically reserved for Fortune 500 companies and apply them to lower middle market B2B companies, particularly in industrial and commercial firms. I could overlay these frameworks and methodologies and help these companies grow.”
He called his company Grey Matter, a play on the tissue of the brain and paired with an obsession with consumer behavior.
“It goes to loving the variables that power the brain and trying to master and understand the psychology of how people make buying decisions,” he said. “I always felt if you understand what made someone tick, what motivates them to change, and craft marketing and sales messaging that guides that person through a buying journey, you’d have very successful outcomes when it comes to winning business against your competition.”
Grey Matter’s origin was humble.
“I founded it inside my one-bedroom apartment in downtown Cincinnati. Just a table and a laptop,” Strauss said. “I had a super strong conviction that I could solve marketing and sales problems for clients. There was one direction to go: growing a business from the ground up.”
He continued to live in that apartment for a couple of years. He later married a woman he met at Wright State — Gina, who works at a health system in Dayton. The couple moved to Centerville to be closer to Gina’s job. Strauss worked from their home, after leaving Grey Matter’s downtown Cincinnati office during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now we work fully remote,” Strauss said of him and his team of 28 full-time employees, more than half of whom live in the Dayton-Cincinnati area. Members of his team live in seven different states.
Strauss said Grey Matter’s growth rate in the last three years was more than 170%, which is what landed the company on Inc.’s prestigious list.
“We grew very fast, certainly over the last three years,” he said, adding that to be recognized by Inc. is “icing on the cake.”
He attributes Grey Matter’s success to a combination of luck and a focus on helping clients generate more revenue through marketing and sales.
“Of course, we practice what we preach, so we’re not shy about using the same frameworks to generate business for ourselves,” Strauss said. “We’re a marketing agency at heart. Growth came down to focusing on client outcomes first and delivering results for them.”
He also gives credit to his time at Wright State, which, living in Toledo, was a university rarely heard of. But thanks to baseball — he played the outfield in high school and was noticed by Raider recruiters — he enrolled at Wright State.
“Wright State prepared me immensely,” he said. “Reflecting on my time at Wright State, they did a fantastic job in the school in finance, accounting, supply chain and marketing – a variety of subjects that were available and allowed us to decide what we wanted to take. The teaching was fantastic. Every prof. I interacted with had so much experience and knowledge and often gave real-life examples of when they were running their businesses or of the time they spent in the business world. I’m still using what I learned from my marketing classes.”
Strauss stays in touch with Wright State’s Raj Soin College of Business as much as he can, returning to speak to entrepreneurship classes.
“I’ve enjoyed coming back to speak on some of my entrepreneurial ventures. Trust me, if I can do it, anyone in those rooms certainly can,” he said. “That’s part of the narrative that I’m trying to share.”
As for the future, there’s only one direction, he said.
“We’re going to continue to do what we do really well,” he said. “Forward is the direction.”