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.

Culture Statement Highlight : We Are Ruled By Ideas

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.


Sidewalk Culture: Ruled By Ideas



Complete transcript below:


[ page 2 ]

An idea is a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action. The best ideas are the things that are most likely to create success if we act on them. Nobody gets past the threshold of our front door if they don't believe and embrace the concept of being ruled by the best ideas. We respect ideas more than people; more than ourselves. We are discerning and have energy to discern good ideas from bad ideas based on merit and evidence at the time. This isn't something we just do. This is something we are. We hold this higher than any other value because it allows us to cut through hierarchy, personalities, emotions, prejudices and defaults, and increases the chances we'll find the truth. 

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.



Your Open Invitation To Publisher Meetings on Campus

Publisher representatives have a big presence on campus – too often at the exclusion of the college store. This can result in students being steered directly to publisher websites, faculty not being quoted the correct market price during adoption, new/custom/loose leaf editions being promoted over materials with long-term student savings, and secretive inclusive access deals with faculty. If college stores have ever thought, “I really want to be present every time a professor is deciding on their book with a publisher rep” or “I wish there was a way the university would require the bookstore to be present with Pub reps”, they’ve got a point. Publisher influence is contributing heavily to today’s affordability issues and is ripe for disruption.

Faculty need objectivity. College stores can offer this objectivity. But they need to do it at scale, in a way that doesn’t require immense resources and time. Hero comes with three built-in features designed to educate and empower faculty in the course materials adoption process right out of the box.

hero-empower.png1.     Transparency.

According to a US PIRG survey, 77% of faculty report that publishers “rarely or never report the price" of a text during adoption. And yet, in the Going Digital survey, faculty rated cost as one of the most important influences in their adoption decisions. Faculty want to make price-conscious decisions for students, but they don’t seem to have the appropriate information to do so.

With Hero, faculty cannot submit adoptions without being exposed to market pricing first. Full transparency is offered so faculty, faculty staff, and/or department leaders can have perfect insight into the cost of their adoption decisions (for the first time).

2.     Cost Increase Alerts.

We’ve always said, “It’s ok if faculty wants to adopt a $300 textbook. It’s not ok if they don’t know it’s a $300 textbook.”

Cost increase alerts act as a double check of sorts in the adoption process. If faculty are adopting new materials, Hero lets them know, immediately, exactly how much more expensive the new content is relative to their last adoption. It’s an opportunity again, for faculty to know the cost their decision has on students. It also anchors a price in the mind of faculty that encourages the discovery of other, less expensive materials.

3.     Digital Price Negotiation. (In partnership with RedShelf) 


When given the choice of two equivalent texts, 94% of faculty surveyed testified that they would choose the less expensive option. Faculty are sensitive to price but they aren’t always aware that they have options.

When adopting content in Hero, faculty will see a clean badge and message for any piece of content that is available for digital negotiation. With a single click of a button, faculty of all class shapes and sizes can initiate a price negotiation with publishers through the college store. If successful, these negotiations will result in discounts on digital content as high as 70% (below the physical used or rental book market).


Hero helps college stores disrupt the publisher-dominated adoptions process. With enhanced faculty engagement, faculty and college stores can work together to eliminate the most pressing inefficiencies plaguing the market and alter the cost trajectory of course materials, forever.

The adoptions process is an important opportunity for college stores. Sign up here to learn more about what Hero can do for your campus today.


5 Things Stores Should Be Doing To Increase The Bottom Line (But Most Likely Aren’t)

The bottom line is the lifeblood of all business and enterprise. It is the most general indicator of business success and health. Improving the bottom line is an age-old pursuit, which under current market conditions is getting more confusing and frustrating for college stores to achieve than ever. If stores are doing their best to keep overhead expenses low, they are left with only one other avenue for bottom line growth: increased revenue. Fortunately, these next five items make that possible.

1. Increase Reach.

One way to increase revenue is to increase market share. By broadening campus exposure, stores can sell to more people. But, this can’t happen if students don’t walk into the store or visit the website. Current tactics of campus promotions, events, and advertising require a lot of time, effort, and investment from stores but are met with varied results. Hero provides a new opportunity.

College stores can easily increase their exposure and win customers by utilizing Hero’s dynamic booklist on campus. An interactive syllabus of sorts, Hero collects campus adoptions and delivers comprehensive and personalized booklists to all students and faculty. These booklists include information like current bookstore and market pricing. When students go to view their required course materials, they are automatically shown the bookstore options and pricing for each item adopted and required for purchase.


In an early pilot program, over 95% of our partner school’s enrollment viewed this Hero booklist over the course of a single semester. When was the last time you had the attention of 95% of enrollment?

2.     Improve Faculty Relations.

As displayed in the 2015/16 Student Watch survey, students listen to the recommendations of faculty. Sometimes (perhaps more often than we would like to know), that recommendation is not favorable to the college store. By putting effort into improving the store’s relationship with faculty and providing helpful tools that contribute to student success, communication and understanding will begin to improve.

Hero provides a variety of tools that aid faculty in the analysis and discovery of course materials. These tools simplify the adoption process and align faculty with stores as a team working toward student success. As faculty begin to view the store as an information source, they will be more likely to promote the college store as the destination for all course material sales moving forward.

3.     Champion New Content.

Buzzwords like OER and digital have been the source of a lot of recent industry chatter due to their affordability potential. And yet, they have been able to make little traction with faculty.

faculty oer experience2.png

The college store is perfectly positioned to embrace these initiatives in a significant way with Hero and become the content hub on campus. When alternative content like OER is fearlessly included alongside traditional content, stores demonstrate that they are the clearinghouse for all course material needs. By doing so, they build unparalleled trust with students and carve out a unique and specialized place in the course materials ecosystem that only they can serve.

4.     Offer Transparency.

According to outside research, 69% of students purchase textbooks from multiple sources, and many students report purchasing from five or more sources. Students spend a lot of time each semester completing a puzzle of multi-website research, seeking course materials at the cheapest price. This frequently results in lost time, late arrivals, purchasing errors, lost sales, and general student frustration.

Hero incorporates a dynamic market price comparison for students, with college store offerings as the first listing. Deploying it not only reduces students’ need to shop around, but it ensures stores are a valid competitor in the new (and unfortunately here-to-stay) age of comparison shopping. This ultimately increases stores’ chances for success and creates a new revenue stream of commission sales for transactions that probably would have been lost anyway.

5.     Address Rising Content Costs.

Last and perhaps most important, all the above points are only effective if college stores can successfully address the rising cost of content. With Hero’s three built-in, cost-cutting features, college stores can attack the rising cost of content at the root of the problem and become the entity that makes course materials a fair market for students long-term.


These five suggestions add value on their own, but optimize bottom line potential when used together, under one scalable tool – Hero. Sign up here to learn more about what Hero can do for your campus today.


Culture Statement Highlight : We Can Do Impossible Things

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.


city guide (3).jpg



Complete transcript below:


[ page 3/4 ]

Steve Jobs said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” We believe this is true. It’s OK that we sometimes fail. It’s OK that we make mistakes. We embrace mistakes, failure, and change as a byproduct of risk taking and invention. This causes us to be misunderstood at times, and we willingly accept it. We believe we will ultimately succeed, even against difficult odds. This drives us to solve really hard problems that most organizations won’t genuinely attempt to solve. Our believing attitude paints us at optimists at core. That’s not a bad word for it. But it’s really the joy and perspective that comes from creating something meaningful, and bringing positive change to the world in the process.


Intro To Hero

Have you wanted to learn more about Hero? Now's your chance!

For the third (and final) installment of our Emergency Webinar series, Sidewalk CEO Alan Martin sat down to discuss the tool that is changing the way content works in higher education, forever. Watch the video below to learn more!

Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent! (Part 3)

Nebraska Book Company And Sidewalk Announce Partnership

New Partnership Paves Way for Best-in-Class Software & Service for Independent Higher Ed Retailers

LINCOLN, Nebraska – June 27, 2016 — Nebraska Book Holdings, Inc. (NBC)* (OTC Pink: NEEB), a leading source of textbooks, rental program options and digital content delivery to over 2,000 independent college retailers across the country, and Sidewalk, a top provider of technology-enabled solutions within the same niche industry, today announced a new strategic partnership that will not only increase the affordability of course materials but also significantly improve the adoptions experience for independent college bookstores and campus faculty.

“Unification in our industry for the betterment of technology, quality and awareness of customer needs will improve the ecosystem for all independent college retailers,” said NBC’s Vice President of Product Management Pete Grenier. “Because Sidewalk shares our belief in the power of independent bookstores and shares our mission to support their success, it made sense to combine forces to ensure we provide only the highest-quality products and services available in the market.”

The partnership will allow both companies to focus their resources on what they each do best. Sidewalk will reduce their efforts toward the development and sale of Pro, its cloud-based point-of-sale (POS) system, in support of NBC’s complete multi-store inventory control and POS software, WinPRISM and PRISM360 products, which combine traditional and digital retail with mobile capabilities and touch-screen features. In kind, NBC will be scaling back the development of its textbook requisitions technology and plans to fully integrate Sidewalk’s adoption tool, Hero, into its industry-leading POS systems, resulting in an all-around improved experience for stores, faculty, and students.

Sidewalk’s Chief Executive Officer Alan Martin said, “Hero brings a fresh and practical approach to the course materials selection process and addresses the rising cost of content head-on, answering some of the biggest questions and challenges facing college stores and the future of content in higher ed today. When coupled with the sophistication and capabilities of Nebraska Book’s POS suite, stores will have the best of both technologies in one unified solution.”

Grenier added, “We’re making significant headway toward a promising and sustainable future for independent college retailers. In partnership with other industry experts like Sidewalk and by listening to our customers, we’re identifying gaps and addressing needs by finding workable, affordable solutions to ensure success in an ever-changing, challenging marketplace.”

More information about product availability will be provided later this year.

About Nebraska Book Holdings, Inc.

Nebraska Book Holdings, Inc., more commonly known as Nebraska Book Company, began in 1915 as an independent college bookstore and is now a key resources partner to over 2,000 independent college retailers nationwide. With its strategic business services and technology offerings, including localized e-commerce capabilities, back-end system access and support as well as textbook solutions, Nebraska Book Company is devoted to supporting and strengthening independent higher education retailers across the United States. For more information about Nebraska Book Company, visit www.nebook.com.

*Nebraska Book Holdings, Inc. common stock is not listed, traded or quoted on any U.S. stock exchange but is quoted on the OTC Pink Market under the symbol NEEB.

About Sidewalk

Sidewalk is a leading provider of technology-enabled content solutions for college stores and faculty. The company’s mission is to change the way content works in higher education, forever, by fundamentally changing the way it is discovered and distributed. Founded in 2007 by CEO Alan Martin under the name CampusBookRentals, the company quickly grew into a leading independent provider of textbook rentals—providing a flexible, convenient and economical alternative to buying textbooks for price-conscious students. Today, over 400 college stores (representing over 2 million students) nationwide have benefited from Sidewalk’s expanded in-store technologies. For more information, please visit www.gosidewalk.com.


Julie Himmelberg

Jeff Bischoff

Emergency Webinars: Staying Independent!

Independent Stores at Risk

We need to talk. In our recent work with several stores facing an open RFP, we've become aware of the increasingly competitive leasing programs that are capturing the interest of campus leadership. The threat from lease operators has never been so potent -- and if college stores are only communicating their value to campus in terms of dollars and cents, they are at risk

In the past few months, we've held two emergency webinars to discuss the inherent advantage of independence and how this advantage can differentiate against lease competition. By taking action, independent stores can provide unparalleled value to campus and make even the thought of going leased a PR nightmare.

To watch the emergency webinars, click the videos below and enter the password "independent" when prompted.


(Part 1) Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent!
Make a case. Understand your value. Know your facts.
Speakers: Alan Martin (CEO, Sidewalk) & Jason Lorgan (Director, UC Davis)
Sponsored By: Sidewalk, CACS, ICBA & indiCo

Emergency Webinar Video 1


(Part 2) Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent!
The Intrinsic Value Of Independent Bookstores: Know it. Do it. Prove it.
Speaker: Alan Martin (CEO, Sidewalk)

Emergency Webinar Video 2

(Part 3) Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent!
Why. What. And now, How.
Speaker: Alan Martin (CEO, Sidewalk)

Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent! (Part 3)

Unsustainable Course Materials

If there’s a weird market in economics, it’s textbooks.

Most markets follow a set of basic principles -- things like supply and demand, response to incentives, and a roughly equal push-and-pull between providers and consumers to determine prices. The consumers are the ultimate decision-makers; they determine a product’s value, whether it should be consumed and its rate of consumption. They don’t do anything they don’t want to do, and suppliers compete against one another in response. You can read more about markets in Harvard economist Greg Mankiw’s outstanding Principles of Microeconomics, the 7th edition of which will cost you about $230 (or you can rent it for about $30) – but generally, it’s a pretty efficient and balanced system.

The economics of college course materials is different. The buyer -- the student -- has no say in what’s adopted for each class. He or she can only decide whether to buy, and they’re at a disadvantage in the classroom if they don’t make the purchase.


The real decision-makers are faculty who make textbook adoption decisions for their course curriculum. The faculty’s business is teaching. No matter how student-centered their selection process, professors have limited information to assess the value of potential content options. Instead they depend on publishers, just five of whom control 80% of the market. In a US PIRG survey, 77% of faculty respondents reported that publishers “rarely or never report the price” of a text during sales transactions. Faculty are largely unaware of the financial burden their content decisions are placing on students. It’s ok if a professor wants to adopt a $300 textbook. It’s not ok if they don’t know it’s a $300 textbook. (The student, of course, will eventually find out the hard way). These market forces culminate in an epidemic in Higher Ed: far too many students choosing to forego texts because of price.

Textbooks 3x Inflation


Source: NBC News

The cost of textbooks has risen 3x the rate of inflation since 1984. The College Board recommends a budget of $1,200 per year for course materials, amounting to $4,800 over a 4-year span -- assuming students will procure all required materials. The National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent data shows a 6-year graduation rate of 59% for a 4-year degree resulting from (but not limited to) failed classes, rejected transfer credits, switched majors, and doubled majors/minors. This potentially raises that budget upwards of $7,200. It's also prudent to factor in 2016’s “Cover The Cost” report that found nearly 1 in 3 students use financial aid to purchase textbooks. (For community college students, that statistic is closer to 50%.) A borrower paying back $4,800+ in student loans processed at the current federal rate of 4.29% for undergraduates will, after a 10-year repayment period, equate to an additional $1,090 in interest payments.

The rise of textbook costs is a pervasive problem that needs to be resolved and can only seemingly be resolved by working with faculty. In the US PIRG survey, 94% of faculty surveyed testified that they’d choose the less expensive of two equivalent texts; which has been confirmed in our own market research. Faculty are sensitive to price and they desire value for their students. They just need adequate information to do so – a big value-add opportunity for the college store.

With transparency at the point of adoption, faculty can factor both quality and cost of a text, encouraging negotiation with publishers and/or higher-value alternatives. Students win by paying less for high-quality materials and faculty win by ensuring their students actually buy the course materials they assign to succeed in class, increasing their chances of success.

The independent college store should be at the center of this process as a hub of content and conduit for information faculty desperately need. Course content will continue to change – its price, its formats, its distribution – but the role of the college store should not.

For more info on our Hero tool, please contact your Sidewalk representative or email info@gosidewalk.com.



1 2 3
Page 2 of 3