5 Minutes With: Beth Christian

Beth Christian

It didn’t take much for Beth Christian to get hooked on a career in collegiate retail. As a long-standing merchant and the former college store manager at Bloomsburg University she brings a unique, store-centric approach to her role as Director of Business Development (Stores) at Sidewalk. We spent five minutes with Beth to discuss her multifaceted career, the nuances of collegiate retail, and how industry needs and challenges have changed in the last few years.

What did you do prior to working at Sidewalk?

I have always been a merchant. I grew up helping in our family’s commercial kitchen equipment and design business. At the age of 22, I opened my own clothing store and after 11 years serving our local downtown in this capacity, I joined Bloomsburg University Store as the General Merchandise Manager in 1997.

Why did you choose Higher Ed?

I think many store managers out there can relate when I say I had no idea I was choosing a career in Higher Education when I began at the University Store. They were looking for someone who knew how to turn a profit, and I was looking for a new challenge that my little store could not provide. Truth be told, I thought it would be very similar to my background in “regular retail”. Surprise! I quickly learned there was a huge difference and so much to learn, but I was almost instantly captivated by the nuances of retail success on a college campus. Bloomsburg’s store is owned by the student government, so all of my college store years were spent truly working FOR students. This was a good foundation for thriving today in collegiate retail because my basic education in the industry has always been rooted in the student perspective.

My move to Sidewalk was similarly a quest for a new challenge, but this time a conscious decision that Higher Ed retail IS where I belong. After 17 years at Bloomsburg I had grown my career as far as it would go at that university, so I was exploring how to use my experience in a new way. In Sidewalk I found people who share my passion for student and college store success, with a future-driven focus that really inspires me.

Describe your current role.

Currently I am in a business development role that includes trade show coordination, liaison to industry associations, business strategy, and (most recently) managing our Customer Success team. Shout out to the eastern third of the country where I am also serving as your CSM!

How have stores changed over the past few years?

In the twenty years I have been in this industry, I have seen a gradual shift from managing stores as a local monopoly, to competing in a global internet economy. The most recent five years have been especially hard, and we’ve had to watch many independent stores hit rock bottom and lose their business. Change is required from independent stores moving forward and I’m happy to see them increasingly strip away old assumptions to explore tools well equipped for this new age of market competition.

How has the the path to store success changed over the past few years?

I think the most interesting change is the focus on contributing to the fulfillment of the academic mission and student success goals. This newfound alignment has greatly elevated store value and it’s exciting to watch their success become increasingly more meaningful to universities (beyond the financial return).

What do you think is the biggest opportunity and/or challenge facing college stores today?

I think the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity are the same thing–and that is time. Time is a limited resource, and stores are constantly challenged with needing to accomplish more at a faster pace. However, this moment in time is also stores’ biggest opportunity because there is new and exciting innovation currently available in the market that allows stores to make major strides towards success. 2017 is going to be a pivotal year in our industry and all stores would benefit to consider changes that will not only make the most impact for them, but make the most impact for them long-term.

In your opinion, what is the core value Sidewalk offers its partners?

I would say unique perspective is the core value that Sidewalk offers its partners. As someone who has walked in the shoes of a store manager, I highly value a partner who can approach the problems I am challenged with every day and bring a completely different perspective that helps a solution become obvious. I could educate myself, motivate my team, strive to meet important goals, but stepping outside my role to view a problem from a fresh perspective was most challenging for me. I think others face similar perspective challenges. When combined with Sidewalk’s transparent candor and desire to be a true partner to you, this unique perspective is even more profound. So often I hear about how different and refreshing it is to work with Sidewalk. And that makes me proud.

What was your best day at Sidewalk?

There are a lot of great days to consider, but I think my best day was Sidewalk Summit 2016 in Houston (before CAMEX). We planned and prepared so long for that day and ended up with great attendance. The sessions spurred interesting conversations and important takeaways, and the day was capped off by our bowling party where everyone seemed to truly enjoy themselves. It was the perfect combination of really solid teamwork (and I include our Summit attendees in that team) and just plain fun.

Most valuable thing you’ve learned or done at Sidewalk?

I’ve learned so much working at Sidewalk that it is difficult to pin down the most valuable thing. I also must admit some of the things I have learned I am embarrassed to share. (OK, I had never seen a google doc before I came here. My secret is out.)

If I had to pick, I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned is data-based decision-making. Before I came to Sidewalk I would have said that I only ever made data-based decisions, but I came to realize how many former decisions were actually judgment-based. After so many years, I relied on data in my head as a guiding principle. It is a far different (and more impactful) thing to list out the facts and reach a conclusion based solely on indisputable data.

Favorite book or piece of content you like to share?

Sidewalk has a great tradition of reading and being inspired by current business literature. One book the executive team read and then recommended to all of us is Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage. The book is full of practical wisdom for team building that we’ve pulled from at Sidewalk. I have recommended this book to some store friends who are using it to approach their management and team building in a new way, as well.

5 Minutes With: Jeff Bischoff

Jeff Bischoff

Another year in Higher Ed is wrapping up, making way for a new year of change and challenges. We snuck in five minutes with Jeff Bischoff, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, to discuss what he currently finds interesting about the higher ed space, strategic opportunities for college stores, and the willingness to break things.

What did you do prior to working at Sidewalk?

I graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in economics before completing an MBA with a certificate in Entrepreneurship from Westminster College. I then went on to work for Goldman Sachs and Pearson Publishing. It was at Pearson Publishing where I realized that the college store had an amazing opportunity to influence and change the world of content in higher education in a very big way.

Describe your current role.

In my current role, I am heavily involved with the market strategy of Sidewalk, which includes identifying problems in the industry, creating solutions, and then bringing those solutions to market. As part of this effort, I oversee the Marketing, Business Development, Customer Success and Sales teams.

Why did you choose this industry?

I believe that education is one of the most important things in the world. But, I also believe that there are so many things wrong with higher education today. The cost of quality content OUTSIDE of higher education is decreasing, while the cost of quality content INSIDE higher education is rapidly increasing. This increase in cost is forcing students to forego important course materials, settle for weakened course performance, and (in some cases) give up on higher education altogether. Content plays a very important role in this industry and we all have an amazing opportunity to fix it — but time is of the essence.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned while working in this space?

The most interesting thing I have learned is that course materials in higher education are controlled by only a few large publisher corporations (comprised of virtually the same people playing musical chairs between companies). These publishers have big pockets and create a huge barrier to entry for smaller publishers and content creators. College stores have an amazing opportunity to be an objective voice and help the best content get to campus–not just the content with the biggest sales force.

What keeps you up at night?

I firmly believe there is a world where content can be both better AND more affordable. Most solutions right now give up affordability for quality, or give up quality in the name of affordability. I worry that if we don’t democratize content soon, schools and governments will have to step in and we will lose innovation and competition in the higher ed content space forever. We can’t continue to accept and live with the status quo.

If you could make/propose one major industry change in the next six months, what would it be?

That college stores start seeing the important role they play in higher education. College stores should align themselves more with the academic side of the institution, than the auxiliary side (like parking and food services). They can begin to make a big impact in the lives of faculty and students when they do.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for most college stores?

Being willing to take risks and break things. Time and time again, we hear stores express that they aren’t able to take risks or rock the boat on their campus–only to see those same stores get outsourced by companies that claim they CAN do bigger and better things (by rocking the boat) weeks later. Stores can no longer fear new ideas. They need to fear old ones.

What do you think is the biggest opportunity for college stores?

To start focusing on the real customer: faculty. The more you focus on faculty, the more you help students. They are the real decision makers with the ability to increase quality and lower costs, so long as they have the tools and transparency available to do so.

What was your best day at Sidewalk?

I think my best all around day at Sidewalk was Sidewalk Summit 2014. We had a great group of stores in attendance and the energy from the sessions and education was almost palpable. It was also the day that we were able to introduce Sidewalk Hero and the importance it can make for the college store industry.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned/done at Sidewalk?

The most valuable thing I have been able to do is work alongside, and learn from, our founder and CEO Alan Martin. He is one of the most innovative, optimistic, and humble people I have ever met. He is a man on a mission, with unparalleled passion and tenacity for this industry. It’s what continues to draw me to Sidewalk each and every day.

Favorite book or piece of content you’d like to share?

There are two pieces of content that have had a big impact on me:

The first is a favorite quote that I use as a mission statement in my life. I have it posted in my office and try to read it frequently. I think it fits perfectly with our industry at this time: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

The second piece is Simon Sinek’s excerpt “Start with Why”, from his Ted Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Every company, movement, group and individual needs to know their “why” if they hope to be successful.

Sidewalk Summit 2017




USERS GROUP – Wednesday, March 1st (Afternoon) | SUMMIT EDUCATION - Thursday, March 2nd (All Day)



For more information on the event, click here.

3 Ways To Crush This Rush

If book Rush makes your toenails curl, we get it. It’s busy, you’re busy, you’re eating way more fast food than you promised yourself in January, and if anything at all goes wrong, then someone angry is going to yell at you.

That’s fine. Inhale deeply, uncurl those tootsies,  and if you have a minute, try these three standbys. They get us through our own Rush, and they just might be useful for your store.


1. Toot Your Horn

For us, Rush also means long, happy, wildly unorthodox hours. At Sidewalk, we have use of a couple of stellar collaboration tools that let us think creatively across time zones and weekends, and we take a bit of pride in that. During Rush, we work as hard as we can for as long as we need to to get the job done. And we revel in our successes together.

There’s a cultural opportunity for your store here, if you want it. How you talk about and treat Rush will make it a semi-annual dreaded disaster or a badge of honor at your store. If your staff is even remotely like our staff, they’re always open to reasons to be proud of their work and their talent. You get to give them those reasons.

For extra credit, we suggest a massive barbecue for your whole team after Rush.


2. Talk It Out

We’ve got to be one of the chattiest companies, per capita, that you’ve ever met. There are only 81 of us, and we still managed to send each other 1.08 million messages in the last 15 months. A large portion of those messages are about how we can’t believe that someone just had a birthday again, and should we have cake, but still. We’re not shy.

When we’re busiest, it’s great to work through trouble (and successes!) together. If you want to join the conversation, I can highly recommend our Store Support and Customer Success teams. Support@gosidewalk.com will get to either team of experts—we can’t get enough conversation from you about what’s working, what’s confusing, what made you laugh, and what you’re worried about in the future.

And as a bonus, if it’s after Rush and you’re looking for the best way to source textbooks, how to make your rental program sustainable, or why on earth you’d stand your pricing up against Amazon’s on your own website—let’s get together.


3. Do What Drives You

This one’s on you—and it’s worth thinking about. If you’re about to lead your team through the busiest time of your year, it’s useful to know what makes you tick. At Sidewalk, we don’t have a vacation policy: it got in the way of talented people making the best decisions for themselves and the company. But we definitely have a vacation philosophy. Talented people need to take time to do what refreshes them, so that they can return to work happy, energized, and wildly innovative.

Figure out what drives you to give your best. This Rush, you might have to intentionally schedule that time with yourself—the uninterrupted cup of coffee because you showed up to work 30 minutes early, the phone call with your parents several states away, or the Netflix binge that snaps your world back into place. You’ve got a thing. Do that thing.

And by the way, each member of your team has a thing, too—something that refreshes them and can turn your Rush from good to great. It might be a good idea to figure out what that is.

Crush It

We’ve never figured out how to make Rush easy over here at Sidewalk, but that doesn’t bug us too much. Rush draws our teams together, forces us to be mentally agile, and really brings out our best. And despite the long hours and the large crowds—it can be that for you, too!

How do you thrive during Rush? Send your tips and tricks to us at support@gosidewalk.com. We’re always looking for them!

5 Minutes With: Jason Kakazu

Jason Kakazu

August marks a new year in higher education and another shot at improving system shortcomings. We snuck in five minutes with Jason Kakazu, Vice President of Technology, to discuss what he currently finds interesting in the higher ed space, approaches to successful change, and why obstacles present an opportunity for us all.

Describe your current role.

As VP of Technology I’m very fortunate in that I get to be involved in so many interesting and challenging projects – from infrastructure and systems architecture, to data analysis, to helping our Product team realize their vision. I also still get to write code! That enthusiasm might sound odd to non-programmers but trust me when I say it’s great for my mental health. One of the awesome things about my role is that I get to work with incredibly talented and smart people on a daily basis (even though some of them have a mischievous streak). At the same time I get to do work broadening access to educational content and that is very rewarding.

What keeps you up at night?

My first thought was to say “Programming and Netflix”. While those definitely do keep me up at night probably a more accurate generalization is that it’s difficult to rest when an interesting question, engaging material, or tough problem is on my plate (“Wha-? It’s morning again?”).

What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned while working in the Higher Ed space?

Nailing down a single thing as being the “most-interesting” is difficult. One thing that I’ve been surprised by though is the incredible rate of change in the Higher Ed space right now. My sense is that the rate of change is probably going to accelerate. There’s been an explosion of educational content in both the Higher Ed and non Higher Ed spaces in recent years. Combine that with a changing student demographic, legal and institutional changes in Higher Ed, and technology getting applied in novel and interesting ways to learning, and you get a recipe for constant flux. It’s tough to predict how the industry will shift so having the ability to adapt and change will be key to navigating the future.

What’s been your most successful approach to effecting change?

I’ve discovered that I’m far more effective at producing the change I want to see when I focus my efforts on a few specific things and then marshal as many sources of influence as I can. An email or hallway chat doesn’t often change outcomes because it isn’t supported by other activities. Impactful change, I think, starts with clear and compelling goals. Progress against those goals must then be measured (and digested) frequently. That foundation should then be bolstered by providing the right tools, motivation, and culture so that people can succeed.

For example, the technology team has made regular improvements to our coding, testing, and deployment processes. The effort is reinforced by automated reminders and quality checks, a battery of automated tests, by frequent code reviews, and by building a set of cultural norms which supports these processes. If I really want to see organizational change I’m most successful when I try to overdetermine the result.

Most valuable thing you’ve learned at Sidewalk?

Every obstacle presents an opportunity. It’s tempting to see problems as impediments to where you want to go but, in many cases, it turns out the opposite is actually true. Juggling a huge number of tasks that you’re not sure you can handle? That’s a great time to improve your ability to prioritize. It also gives you a chance to think more deeply about which of those activities will produce the most value. Have a tough message to deliver to a friend, neighbor, or vendor? That’s an occasion to ponder what outcome you’re hoping for, determine the best way to achieve that, and to polish your communication skills.

A War In Higher Education

There is a war happening in higher education between lease operators and independent college stores. Lease operators are on the offensive — leveraging big pockets to wage war on independent stores. Sometimes this is done privately, in conversations with campus leadership that independent stores are not aware of or privy to. Sometimes it is more public. But in every case, independent stores are left to fight on the defensive – a weaker fighting position long overdue for reinforcement.

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, profoundly stated; “Only the paranoid survive.” In business, so many companies don’t survive because they can’t keep up with the rapid changes within their industry. Every industry will go through massive strategic changes over time. The organizations that spot changes, adapt to changes, and then ride those changes to a new paradigm are the ones that will remain successful. Those that remain with the status quo, fade into irrelevance and ultimately, failure.  He illustrates this point with the following graph:

Strategic Inflection Points

When this graph is overlapped with the college store model, it roughly portrays this phenomenon at play in course materials today:

Strategic Inflection Points for College Stores

Twenty years ago the old paradigm reigned and college stores enjoyed a monopoly market share.  New and used books were offered and sold through frequently at an 80-100% rate. Wholesalers provided a predictable supply chain along with the necessary technology to manage a large buyback.  Success resulted from purchasing to meet predictable student needs and maintaining consistent store processes.

Then came the internet, an ever-evolving machine that created entirely new markets for textbooks, and a platform for students to engage with those markets. Textbook rentals were introduced, which shifted market economics further and paved the way for a new phase of disruptions.  Digital books, OER and other lower margin content lead us today into a new paradigm for higher education content (and college stores’ involvement in it).

Although these specific strategic inflection points reflect our own market history, the graph tangibly illustrates that the organizations who spot and ride new trends (regardless of what those trends are), will find a tremendous amount of success and secure a future in an ever-changing market.

Danger Standing Still

“The ability to recognize that the winds have shifted and to take appropriate action before you wreck your boat is crucial to the future of your enterprise. Most companies don’t die because they do wrong; most die because they don’t commit themselves. They fritter away their valuable resources while attempting to make a decision. The greatest danger is in just standing still…” -Andy Grove

In many other industries, organizations have the chance to learn and prove themselves every day. Restaurants, for example, serve dishes multiple times every day. Over the course of just a few days, they are able to collect enough feedback to make recipe or menu changes and improve based on data and reactions from the previous day. In the higher ed course materials market, college stores only get that chance two to three times a year. Rush comes and goes really quickly and often leaves a wake of imperfect data for stores to sort out. Stores may have to wait up to six months to fill the gaps in that data; a big delay in which another market shift may have occurred. This makes higher education a difficult (perhaps even impossible) place to move quickly with complete data. That’s ok. It’s vital that independent college stores make changes with the data they do have.

Today’s higher ed course materials market favors those who are willing to embrace change and experiment with new tools, products, and/or strategies to deliver optimum value to students and faculty. We believe it’s crucial that independent college stores adapt to current market changes. Those who do will thrive and drastically outcompete the (sometimes silent) barrage of lease proposals hitting the desks of campus leadership.