There are two ways to make money in business: You can unbundle, or you can bundle.” – Jim Barksdale, cofounder of Netscape

As frameworks for identifying opportunities in startupland go, unbundling / (re)bundling is amongst the most seminal ones out there. Here is an example of how it works.

Visualize a product that helps you read (for a fee) any magazine / newspaper story – effectively you have unbundled or decoupled the story from the wrapper.  Now imagine, you had an option every saturday to get a printed / ebook of all of the stories you selected for leisurely reading. Voila, you have created a new magazine via (re)bundling. But it is different because you have control over the components. The atomic unit of control has shifted with this new bundle from the wrapper to the stories.

I suppose inherently that is what unbundling / bundling is all about – it enables the user to have better control over the components of the bundle, so as to decouple certain components from the wrapper, and / or allow reconstituting of all or different elements of the bundle to fashion a different product.

Let us use unbundling to think through the creation of an adult or human being.

Unbundling the creation of adults

Historically / traditionally, to become a functioning adult, the following needed to have happened / come together.

Marriage + Sex + Fertility + Childbirth + Parenthood + Childcare => creation of an adult.

Some of the above are conditions / status like fertility, e.g., men needed to have an adequate sperm count, or parenthood (parental status; being recognized as the parent). Others are actions like marriage, childbirth etc.

Marriage was a highly desirable but not necessary condition. So you have

Sex + Fertility + Childbirth + Parenthood + Childcare => creation of an adult.

This is essentially the out-of-wedlock child. Incidentally 70% of the births in Iceland (60% in Bulgaria, 40% in US) are out-of-wedlock births. In countries like India, percentages are lower given the paternalistic nature of society.

Sex, or having the father and mother indulge in coitus, in order to fertilize the egg is not essential. IVF or Invitro Fertilization allows the fertilization to happen outside the body. This typically happens when one of the couple is infertile.

So we could certainly have

Marriage + Childbirth + Parenthood + Childcare => creation of an  adult.

This could be for a couple who are infertile, or at least one of the members is infertile. This could also hold for, say a lesbian couple. Of course marriage is not essential. You could just have

Childbirth + Parenthood + Childcare => creation of an adult.

(Marriage) + Fertility + Childbirth + Parenthood + Childcare => creation of adult.

Hmm; so who could this be? Imagine an individual with a spinal cord injury who cannot indulge in the sex act but is fertile. Or imagine someone who is asexual but wants to be a parent. Or even a single mom who wants to be a parent who can access sperm banks.

Incidentally even childbirth can be unbundled out, via surrogate mothers.

So you could have just

Fertility + Parenthood + Childcare => creation of an adult.

Imagine a couple who like each other and want to bring a kid up together, but may not harbour romantic or sexual feelings towards each other. And perhaps the woman may be older or may not want to take the pain of childbirth.

(Marriage optional) + Parenthood + Childcare => creation of an adult

This is adoption.

Unbundling the unbundle-able

Thus far two of the components have remained sacred – parenthood and childcare. Let us visualize what it means to unbundle them out.

Childcare seems a tough one to unbundle, but if say rising childcare costs – both time and money – are leading to lower fertility rates, what if the government subsidizes childcare immensely. What if there were luxury orphanages or boarding schools, where the state takes over childcare with parents visiting occasionally, and with well-paid caregivers / nurses. Sort of like luxury senior living residencies but for children.

This might be of interest to a country like Japan that is depopulating, and doesn’t want to allow immigration that could change the essential character of the country. Encourage couples to have kids but then allow the state to spend on their childcare.

So you have

Marriage + Sex + Fertility + Childbirth + Parenthood => Creation of adult

Or even

Sex + Fertility + Childbirth + Parenthood

Or just

Childbirth + Parenthood

Or other combinations.

Another interesting / crazy thought is for parenthood to be unbundled. What if the state becomes the guardian of these kids? Imagine a country faced with depopulation, again Japan or Bulgaria, that encourages couples to come together to create a baby + hand it over to the state. Maybe one step further – imagine if the state could mix and match different sperm and eggs and fertilize it via IVF, and implant in surrogate mothers, and then take over the guardianship of these kids. 

Potential Startup Ideas

Where can startups help? What are the problems that lend themselves to tech?

Let us go over each of the components of the bundle, and quickly see the long-term themes underway and potential tech solutions.

ComponentsLong-term trends / themes underwayWhere startups / tech can help
Marriage1) Delinking of marriage + childrearing is underway 2) Marriage rates are droppingn/a
Sex1) People (esp younger people) seem to be having less and less sexOne area for many startups to emerge. Only Fans is one such play. There will be more such plays helping adults navigate the entire continuum of sexual activities, including what looks like sex but isn’t (e.g., cuddling) and enabling varied arrangements (see Feeld). We will also see the stigma around sextech startups reducing in the future.
FertilityTaboo around infertility is decreasing.There could be tech startups that help in identifying and correcting infertility faster and cheaper, e.g., democratizing access to IVF, democratizing access to sperm or eggs, or even selling branded sperm (celebrities / influencers)
ChildbirthSurrogacy is heavily governed by legal regulations. The 2019 act snuffed a flourishing commercial surrogacy industry in India.If commercial surrogacy is legal, then certainly tech can help in creating a marketplace that enables parents to discover and transact with surrogates.
ParenthoodAgain, this is an area where legal regulations matter.n/a
ChildcareThe rising cost of childcare, including the high opportunity costs of bringing up a child by it impacting a woman’s career.  Tech can work here by connecting child carers to parents (how Uber connects commuters to drivers). These needn’t be specialist carers but could even be say senior citizens who live closeby and can afford to prove time and emotional services. Think Wonderschool but more for quasi-parenting / day care.   I do think there is potential for new age kibbutz type arrangements for childcare where childcare costs (time and money) can be spread across more people.   Can there be scope for patreon for childcare? Say prodigies being given budgets or funds by single people or others to buy books or pursue hobbies.  

The two areas I am most hopeful of startup activity and impact will be

  • SexTech: enabling individuals to navigate the spectrum of sexual activities including quasi-sexual ones like touch; expanding the range of activities between influencers and fans (like celebrities providing sperm or eggs for ther fans)
  • Childcare: using tech solutions to reduce costs – either via marketplaces for carers and parents to transact childcare, or by enabling financing of childcare via patreon-type arrangements, or as Balaji puts it here with David Perell, perhaps kids becoming earning machines or cash flow positive, like their 18th century counterparts.

….And I think also, Blake Ross, for example, famously coded Firefox when he was a high school student. There’s more and more examples of this young talent. I think actually, we’re sort of going back to the future where in the 1800s, kids worked very early on. The reason that Jebidiah and Abigail would have six kids is because they were actually cashflow positive in the sense of those kids were quickly picking cotton or they were going in and mending fences, milking cows, doing all these farm type things. So the thing about that was those kids, they were not infantilized. They were very quickly given a level of responsibility that was commensurate with their ability to follow instructions. They were doing chores as soon as they could understand what chores were.

Then what happened was by the late 1800s, early 1900s, sending your kids to work early on meant sending them now increasingly than farm, sending them to a factory where there’d be wage labor. The difference, and this sort of a flip way of putting it, but I think in an interesting way of putting it is those factory owners were not equity aligned. They didn’t love the kids. The parents, when they sent their kids out to do chores, you wouldn’t work the kid to the bone, of course. You love your kid and you weren’t going to harm them. These chores would be good for them. They’d learn some discipline or whatever. The factory owner would not necessarily have such a constraint. So child labor obviously got a bad name because some unscrupulous factory owners would push these kids too much. So what happened was basically a backlash against children doing any kinds of work.


If you found any of this interesting and want to discuss further, I am happy to exchange notes. I am sp at sajithpai dot com.