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Here is a rumination of return on investment, both on material and spiritual!

A vegetable vendor pulls his cart in our neighbourhood.  His only advertising strategy is a loud howl: “Beans, fresh beans.  Brinjal, the best brinjal.”  He knows his customers’ tastes, price points and required quantities, and smiles are the only form of communication.  It was a Sunday morning, and it was my turn to pick the jute bag from him, and I asked him, “Do you make enough?” The communique went on: “Costs are going up saar, margins are down, but smiles are for me, and the saga goes on.”  In a single line, he had economics, accounting and philosophy coupled with customer relationship and his ROI was clear.  His ROI was to make a living, and also sell smiles.

Everyone wants a return on investment.  The two words – ‘return’ & ‘investment’ – are there in every walk of life.  Investment could be money; the returns are in terms of money.  Investment could be time on services, and the returns are service income.  Investment could be time for a social cause, and the return is a social impact.  Different people construe investments and returns very differently.  Similarly, returns could be different for the same person during different periods of time.

Originally, when I started in my profession, returns were my profitability.  Over a period of time, the return is organisation growth.   The initial investment was time, professional services and the returns were profits.  Later, the investment was being a partner in growth, the return manifested as ‘shared’ return.  Then, the investment was growth of the organisation, the return was brand value and recognition.  Thereafter, the investment would be for the ecosystem, and the return would be the growth of the profession.  Even for an individual, the investment varies at different points of time, and similarly the return also varies.

Let us examine, what investment and returns mean to different people, and let’s look at a variety of situations.  It is clear that a heterogenous combination is what makes the world of ‘desire and achieved’ most colourful.

A start-up ecosystem

I had a meeting with a start-up entity.  The entrepreneur had created a delivery mobile application.  There were investors; he had spent his entire three years of prime time on the product.  They were burning cash, and their revenue looks like a miniscule dwarf as compared to the costs.  There was a large investment, yet the return was not the revenue, nor the profit.  The ROI for the investment was creating a large base of users.  Initially, it perplexed me – that burning of cash to acquire users.  How can it be a business model?  But there is science behind this model.  The investment was time and money and the return was just a customer base.

A social entrepreneurship

There were large sums of moneys invested, the organisation was for profit, but also had an objective to create a social impact.  The investment was in millions, and included the minds of some exemplary individuals, and the return was partially for money.  But the bigger game was creating an impact in the society.  The return of money was not the prime motivator, it was a by-product, while the social impact was the vision.  They are not a charitable enterprise.  They work as a corporate, but the returns are not in the profit and loss account.  The returns are in the social benefit.

A strange investment and a stranger return

I met a person who engages in the last rites of a particular sect.  His investment was his compassion and the returns were seeing a crying family perform the last rites.  He was not doing it for money, he was not creating a social impact, he was not creating awareness, and he was not amidst happiness, yet he was offering a service which seldom people do.  This person’s investment was his heart, and the return he expected was a smooth passage for the deprived soul.

A global industrialist and others

A global industrialist told me that money does not motivate him.  Business is a game and he enjoys the game.  His investment was ideas, money and infrastructure, and the return was the joy of doing the business.  Another industrialist would create jobs as a return for his investment, some others could aim to create economic growth for the country as their ROI.

An artist could invest his life for creating a masterpiece and could label it ‘not for sale’ and it is possible that it would be buried in the closet for his lifetime.  A musician would invest his life to just render a dedication before his Lord.

Investment could be money; the returns are in terms of money.  Investment could be time on services, and the returns are service income.  Investment could be time for a social cause, and the return is a social impact.

Some corporates would invest not to expect anything in return, but to kill the competitor.  This is a destructive return.  Carpet-bombing is a marketing strategy to invest money and monopolise the market.  Some investments just change the entire business model, for instance an Airbnb has become the largest in the hospitality industry, without a single tangible ownership.  Investments could be for a political career.  Investment of time for family wellbeing comes in a different space.  Therefore, the investment can be in many forms and return can be in many forms too.  The chorus goes like this: where there is an investment, the word ‘return’ is a cousin.

A spiritual soul

He has invested himself, his mind, body, soul, heart, money, time and more than that, his life.  He has given everything he has.  What is his return?  He expects nothing in return.  This is a situation of ‘only investment’ and expecting ‘no return’.  Does he care for recognition?  That craving left him decades ago.  Is he creating an eco-system for his benefit?  He is selfless.  Is he creating a religion? He desists from religion.  Is he expecting people to love him, respect him and adore him?  Not at all.  Yet, his investment in love multiplies in abundance.  Was Ramakrishna Mission a return on the investment of the Paramahamsa’s entire life?  Definitely not, as he would never have expected any return.  His investment is everything, and he expects nothing.  This is a strange ROI.  An investment includes everything in the parenthesis, but the return has nothing in the parenthesis.  It intrigues me many a times.  What is their return on investment?  It perplexes me as to what it is in return these souls expect.

An investment of tons of money, crusading and criss-crossing countries to change people’s lives for the better, sustaining the torment on the body, experiencing a different climate, eating strange food, sacrificing family time, spending their own money… and they do not even expect anything in return.  It appears quite a strange return.  A similar analogy to get clarity is, “I want people to use my house, have a great time, I will love them, I am under pain sometimes, yet I do not claim anything back.”  Can you put yourself in a situation like this and ask for yourself, “What is their return of investment?”  The answer is a clear nothing; their return is only showing us a nothing and giving us everything.  They give us ‘the nothing’ and expect ‘nothing’.  The former ‘nothing’ being the adjective, and the latter ‘nothing’ being a noun.

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