The Mount St. Helens Moment of Course Materials

Let’s jump back a few decades for a minute. Mount St. Helens in Washington state was very clearly a volcano. Scientific observations indicated it was a volcano that would inevitably erupt at some point in the future. But because its dormant behavior generally seemed the same year after year, it wasn’t top of mind. That is, until the early months of 1980. Those observing the mountain started to notice that it was bulging and taking new shape. News outlets began covering the phenomenon. Research teams began collecting data in a frenzy. After two months of excited reporting, general consensus had changed from, “That’s a volcano that’s going to erupt” to, “Holy cow! That’s a volcano that’s going to erupt!” Although nearly identical in language, the meaning was suddenly materially different than before. After years of predicted eruption, there was finally enough physical proof that transformed this hypothesis into an active, anticipated event with mainstream buzz. The whole world was watching Mount St. Helens metamorphosis.


Mount St. Helens.jpg


Mount St. Helens offers an interesting analogy to the course materials space we operate in today. There are significant movements in the market that are causing the course materials ecosystem to similarly bulge and take new shape. On a high level, these movements include, but are not limited to:

  • High content costs
  • Publisher moves
  • Content fragmentation
  • Legislation
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Vendor market exits
  • Declining student success
  • Rising leasing trends 

A lot of change is accumulating and similar to the early physical changes on Mount St. Helens, it all very clearly points to one conclusion: the market as we know it is about to transform in a very big way. These movements create a massively exciting time for all in the content space. However, it’s college stores’ opportunity to lose. A winning outcome won’t come for free. The market is in rapid flux, and fortunately, college stores are naturally positioned with intrinsic strengths to come out on top. But it will require acknowledgement of what this moment is: an opportunity to empower store teams, act boldly with data, and do amazing amounts of important work in order to ensure longterm success. The market players that seize the moment, and actively take part in it, are the ones that will be met with success. 

Our goal is to make sure that’s you.

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.


Culture Statement Highlight : People Development

We are often asked, "Why is Sidewalk so different from other vendors?” CEO Alan Martin didn't start out with the intent of creating an unusual culture at an enterprise focused on higher ed course materials.  He began with the problem, “Why?” -- as in "Why are college textbooks so expensive and how could I help bring that cost down?" That was in 2007 and now, nine years later, Sidewalk is intentionally answering those questions with a corporate culture best served to accomplish the solution in innovative and effective ways.  Here's a little window into the Culture Statement that drives and inspires Sidewalk to approach things differently every day.


Culture Highlight 5


Complete transcript below:


[ page 22 ]

We support self improvement, based on our core belief in agency, and since high performance people are generally self-improving through experience, observation, introspection, reading, and discussion, this usually works out. If our talented people are surrounded by stunning colleagues who are honest with them, and if we provide big challenges to work on, the framework is set for personal development. This allows talented people to manage their own career based on their skills and reputation. We try hard to provide opportunity to grow by surrounding our people with great talent and big challenges.


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.


The Why Of Price Comparison

The last ten years in higher ed course materials have brought about a lot of change, particularly in student behavior. What's something college stores can do to stay relevant amid these ever-changing market trends? Appeal to increasingly price-conscious student consumers by embracing market transparency. If you aren’t yet offering price comparison at your store (or have chosen not to), here are five important benefits for you to consider:


1. Increase Customer Trust

There is an unfortunate misconception among students that the college store is the most expensive place to acquire textbooks. A price comparison engine that offers an objective lens for students to view their course material sourcing options overcomes that misunderstanding and signals to students that their college store isn’t the predatory enterprise it is too often made out to be. Utilizing such a tool is a grand gesture to students that the college store is in business to foster student success in any way they best can.


2. Gain New Sales

Many students are already utilizing price comparison engines online to research their course material sourcing options. However, none of these online engines currently include the local options of the college store -- meaning, a significant amount of students may acquire their materials elsewhere unaware of how competitive their college store actually is. By hosting a personalized price comparison engine, local store options can counter online retailers’ for the first time. This invites the most savvy and price conscious buyers on campus back to the college store, all while leveraging a powerful store differentiator: convenience. Market behavior has proven that a price difference of only a few dollars is negligible to students (and the convenience and accuracy of the college store will win out).


3. Monetize Lost Sales

Of course, when the price difference is more than a few dollars, there is the risk that sales will be lost to other online vendors. Although counterintuitive, it’s important to keep in mind that those most likely would have been lost sales for the store anyway. By hosting price comparison for campus, the college store gets to monetize those lost sales with referral commission. This is a revenue stream previously left on the table, available for other vendors to re-invest in the strategic practices that won them the sale in the first place.


4. Impress Campus Leadership

There is something to be said about an enterprise that is willing to offer students complete market transparency and freedom of choice, at the potential risk of a few lost sales. It drastically separates an independent store doing its best to objectively serve students affordable course materials, from a lease operator in pursuit of profit and power. These lease operators may or may not currently be talking to your campus leadership. Regardless, positioning your store up as an objective, early advocate of student affordability and accessibility is a powerful value-add opportunity that only solidifies your place on campus now (and forever).


5. Maximize Store Value

With Hero, the potential doesn’t end with price comparison. Utilizing Hero to power price comparison lays the fundamental infrastructure necessary for college stores to do so much more: productive faculty engagement, scalable inclusive access and digital negotiation, and effective OER campaigns (to name just a few). Unlike other price comparison tools currently available to college stores at a hefty price, Hero establishes a framework that allows college stores to truly stand out and make a difference -- at a fraction of the price.
Don’t wait any longer to harness the power of price comparison. Get started today and see what Hero can do for you!


Culture Statement Highlight : Principles of Scientific Method

We are often asked, "Why is Sidewalk so different from other vendors?” CEO Alan Martin didn't start out with the intent of creating an unusual culture at an enterprise focused on higher ed course materials.  He began with the problem, “Why?” -- as in "Why are college textbooks so expensive and how could I help bring that cost down?" That was in 2007 and now, nine years later, Sidewalk is intentionally answering those questions with a corporate culture best served to accomplish the solution in innovative and effective ways.  Here's a little window into the Culture Statement that drives and inspires Sidewalk to approach things differently every day.


Culture Highlight 4


Complete transcript below:


[ page 2-3 ]

1. Question Authority. No idea is true just because someone says so.

2. Think For Yourself. Question yourself. Don't believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn't make it so.

3. Test Ideas By The Evidence Gained Through Observation And Experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well designed test, it's wrong. Get over it.

4. Follow The Evidence Wherever It Leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgment.

5. Remember, You Could Be Wrong.

Every interaction we have is fueled by the desire for truth. This requires every person to think for themselves and speak for themselves. Anything other than thinking for yourself would be bending to authority. We of course disagree on ideas themselves, maybe furiously, but not in our honest desire for truth. Our mission is very hard. We are surrounded by bureaucracy, decades old traditions and technology, and extremely well-funded competitors. Anything short of the best ideas winning isn't acceptable when laid against the backdrop of the challenge ahead of us.


8 Game Changers for Hero Users

8 Game Changers For Hero Users


Sidewalk Summit 2017




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




For more information on the event, click here.


Important Update: In-Store Rentals

Sidewalk began renting books in-store in 2009. What seemed novel then eventually became mainstream, and we’re happy that the majority of stores today have brought some form of rental to students. We believe rental is a powerful tool to lower the cost of content, making content accessible to more students.

Rental has been an important part of Sidewalk. It has allowed us to get to know this industry and has ultimately led us to build even more products that we passionately believe address fundamental value opportunities for the college store. In-store rental has also had its downsides. Financing it has been painful. Timing and market volatility combined with too broad array of titles being returned to Sidewalk from stores, created sometimes unpredictable financial outcomes. What that has meant for our partners is unpredictability in the way we price rentals, how many titles we make available each semester, and how quickly we pay.

Although we fundamentally believe that every book available should be for rent, we’ve learned that we cannot guarantee every title ourselves because our ability to monetize many books after the rental cycle is negligible. As it turns out, Sidewalk alone is not large enough to consume the rental demand of our clients.

We pondered the problem at hand, desiring to create an outcome which aligned with our values and which would accomplish the following:

dot  Keep rental alive in-store, in a fully managed and risk-free fashion
dot  Provide a broader and more predictable title selection to our store partners
dot  Provide better pricing to students
dot  Increase the speed at which we could pay our store partners and increase our financial strength as a company
dot  Decrease inventory risk so we can focus on software and the user experience
dot  Bring the current textbook market dynamics to the store, not just our interpretation of it

The thinking around these desired outcomes led us to something we’re calling Cloud Rental. This is the new and sustainable way that Sidewalk is offering rentals to the market. Cloud Rental can be related to renting with rebates, but with some very important twists. For example: it remains a fully managed and risk-free program, and all rebate participants (vendors) are hidden from the store. It works like this:

Cloud Rentals

Sidewalk aggregates rebate lists from industry participants. (Eventually this could even include other schools who understand their future demand.) When you upload your rental list, it prices against this cloud of rebate prices available in Cloud Rental, delivering the best rental price it can, based on rebate prices available at the time. When students return books to your store at the end of the semester, you simply keep the ones you want to keep and send the rest to Sidewalk. Sidewalk then divides the books and ships them to the individual vendors who won the titles through their rebate offer.

Your store wins because more books get priced more competitively. This happens predictably, term after term, attracting more students and growing market share. Your risk decreases since rental is a reflection of a broad set of market activity, as opposed to the needs of a single vendor (Sidewalk - or any other vendor offering a single vendor solution). Sidewalk wins because we transfer much of the cost burden onto other participants who have specific need for titles, and who have the capability to monetize titles most profitably.

Over the next few months we will be modifying our internal workings to deliver a stronger, expanded catalog for the January rental season via Cloud Rental. We’re excited about rental, as we always have been. We believe it is a core value proposition that both students and administrations have come to expect, and it is our hope that these changes increase stores’ success with rental.

To learn more about Cloud Rentals, click here.


Culture Statement Highlight : Context, Not Control

We are often asked, "Why is Sidewalk so different from other vendors?” CEO Alan Martin didn't start out with the intent of creating an unusual culture at an enterprise focused on higher ed course materials.  He began with the problem, “Why?” -- as in "Why are college textbooks so expensive and how could I help bring that cost down?" That was in 2007 and now, nine years later, Sidewalk is intentionally answering those questions with a corporate culture best served to accomplish the solution in innovative and effective ways.  Here's a little window into the Culture Statement that drives and inspires Sidewalk to approach things differently every day.


Culture Highlight 3


Complete transcript below:


[ page 17 ]

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

This quote has been attributed to Antoine De Saint-Exupery, but we can't verify it. We don't care who said it. It captures the power of context over control almost perfectly.

The best managers figure out how to get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, rather than by trying to control their people. Context, not control means providing the insight and understanding to enable sound decisions from talented and reasonable people. This means we embrace strategy, metrics, assumptions, objectives, clearly-defined roles, knowledge of the stakes, and transparency around decision-making. We avoid top-down decision-making, management approval, committees, and planning and processes (if they are valued more than results). Good context includes: clear ties to company and functional goals, relative priority (how important or time sensitive something is), level of precision and refinement (no errors at all, pretty good because errors can be corrected, totally experimental... failure is expected), who the key stakeholders are, and key metrics/definition of success.


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