There are only two ways to make money in business: one is to bundle; the other is unbundle.” – Jim Barksdale, former CEO and President of Netscape.

There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Time machine

A metaphor that I have found useful to view the impact of COVID on tech and business, is view it as a time machine. Take education or even ecommerce. We did expect, in early 2020, that one day our kids or their kids would all be learning online, or that we would be increasingly buying much of our groceries online. But if asked to predict when, we would likely have said a few years to a decade out. And yet, here we are, a few months on, our kids all on Microsoft Teams or Zoom, and us using Milkbasket or Amazon or Instacart to get our groceries.

COVID accelerated digital adoption significantly, and advanced the future considerably; hence the metaphor of COVID as time machine. And in catalysing digital adoption, it actually led to a new type of product where the physical aspects of the product are being decoupled or unbundled from the core service. In education for instance, it unbundled or decoupled daycare or social aspects from the actual learning component. In retail, it unbundled the transaction from the experience.

As we decouple and unbundle more and more physical offerings, such as movie watching or dining, we are casting away all of the social aspects associated with it and thereby moving from communal to singular consumption. And that brings us to this question? How many of these physical business models or offerings – be it schools or movie theatres – see themselves as offering socialisation in addition to its core functional offering? Do schools see themselves as disguised daycare, or a space for kids to develop friendships as much as a space for learning math? Do movie halls or theatres see themselves as a space for friends or lovers to spend time together while communally sharing an artistic experience?

I am not so sure. 

Disguised social 

A friend of mine runs a weekly cooking class for kids in the Bay Area. Unfortunately with COVID and the social distancing norms in place, she had to drop it. While she could theoretically do an online class, the challenge with cooking classes for kids is that you need supervision and that means that an online class now needs the parent to actually commit her attention to the class and supervise her kid. Whereas if it was a physical class, the parent could drop the kid and hit a cafe or a bookstore for some me time. For the parent it was a double whammy – not only was it more screen time for the kid (which was exactly what the parent was looking to avoid, but it also meant that an hour or more from her schedule had to be committed. Not to forget other related inconveniences such as organising the ingredients, which were earlier done by my friend.

On the other hand, my Crossfit coach was able to move about half or so of his class online. They meet on Zoom and work out (I couldn’t stand another zoom hour and skipped). In his case, his customers were willing to overcome the ‘weak’ socialisation component of the online workout, because they still were able to get the calendaring element i.e. a schedule that they felt pressured to join. One reason why Crossfit or a group exercise class like Soulcycle works over the traditional solo gym visit is because of the pressure of the group. This is also the reason why most of the yoga / dance instructors have been able to move a reasonable number of their clients online. There isn’t any special equipment required and the group classes meant that there is sufficient pressure to join.

It is useful to look at these two instances and see how different elements were bundled with the core functional offering – learning or fitness. In case of the cooking class, daycare / social was bundled, while in the latter case we saw calendaring bundled with fitness. The bundling or the nature of the bundle isn’t a conscious choice. It emerges from the physical (distribution) format of the offering. Still it isn’t apparent to many providers of physical offerings that there are elements of daycare, social or calendaring / commitment integrated with the core offering.

An example of a brand that recognised this was Ikea. In many of their larger stores they have a section called Smaland where kids are left alone to play in a cordoned play area, under minimal but sufficiently effective supervision. Occasionally parents game it to get free daycare. I have struggled to find other similar examples. Yes, there are play areas – most commonly in malls, but they are really spaces where the parent has to accompany the kid. At least this is what I have noticed thus far in India.

In marketing literature, we would call of these individual components as serving different types of jobs-to-be-done. We hire a pricey restaurant on an anniversary, not so much for the food alone, but for the ambience, and to signal to each other that it is a special occasion. So if due to COVID you are in lockdown and cant leave the house, then you can’t just replace the going out with a dining in; you need to add back consciously the missing elements that serve the core job to be done, which in this case is signalling the specialness of the occasion. So you may be better off hiring an online musical performance, or even cooking a special meal together. The replacement product looks nothing like what the original was.

Adding back social / rebundling

Bundling, unbundling and rebundling is a common theme in tech. We started with the CD, and then unbundled it into the song (mp3), and rebundled it into the stream (itunes, spotify etc.). Then there is the rebundle I heard of in Argentina, and this has nothing to do with tech, where they unbundled the (fun) wedding from the (boring) marriage, and added theatrics and drama, to create a new kind of faux wedding that is called falsa boda.

Rebundling of social is a theme that I see emerging as digital becomes the default; as more and more physical (and bundled) experiences or offerings go digital, we will start seeing socialization or daycare elements being added back consciously to the digital element as a discrete and separately configurable component. We watched movies w friends in cinemas. Now we watch Netflix alone so now we want Netflixparty.

Alternately we may also see social or communality as a service by itself.

Imagine PVR or INOX or other movie chains offering a daycare show a la Ikea. Say, old cartoons playing on loop in a well-lit theatre where kids can play with social distancing measures enforced via the presence of staff at hand, while parents are free to drop off their kids and go shopping. If birthday parties are quasi-daycare (the specific job-to-be-done here) then is there a space for a kid’s-parties-as-a-service for harried parents to drop off kids for a fee; as the kid’s equivalent of the Argentinian false wedding? What about offsites-as-a-service for remote working companies, say where a travel co can plan and execute twice-a-year or so meetups or offsites of all of your remote staff, say with different games and trust-building exercises thrown in?

I see startups in this space being able to offer 3 distinct types of services

  • Offering a physical social-as-a-service offering to pure digital plays like the offsites-as-a-service idea. Imagine an API that is available to digital apps to layer on their service enabling geographic catchups (sort of a white label for their own subscribers). 
  • Enabling communal or group virtual consumption of a service – what I call dogether (i.e., do-together) such as netflixparty where you can watch or play something with their friends. This could be as an API or even a distinct dogether service. 
  • Social network of subscribers: Lastly they can offer an API that can convert your subscribers or fanbase, your Substack or Patreon or podcast / twitter followers to interact amongst each other.

To conclude, as products increasingly go digital and the social aspects gets unbundled out of the offerings, we will begin to see separate social offerings to help customers add these social elements back.