THE BLOG
09/19/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Numbers Story

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Two tech billionaires and an entrepreneur walk into a bar.

The billionaires, both men, fall into a bidding war to determine who will get the first option on new technology developed by the entrepreneur, who is a woman and nearly a generation younger than them.

She, possessing a philanthropic heart as well as a keen business sense, has vowed to sell the technology only if it is used to deliver positive social change along with a financial return.

As the bidding rises, the voices of the men get louder and louder. The mood grows more and more aggressive. The entrepreneur looks ill-at-ease, but the billionaires don't notice. Finally, the bartender interrupts.

"I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. Why don't you take it outside."

He brings out a softball and three old baseball gloves from underneath the bar and puts them on the counter.

Stunned, the two billionaires and the entrepreneur say nothing.

"A few years back, I used to have a little competition with a workmate," explains the bartender. "Whoever rang up the most business got to keep all the night's tips. We pretended it was a game. But it got kind of nasty. One night before we started our shifts, I told him it was time to put on the gloves ..."

The bartender winks and pats the baseball gloves on the counter.

"... He thought it was weird at first. But we just slipped into a rhythm. Throwing and talking, talking and throwing. All the aggro drained away and before we knew it, we were counting how many throws we could make back and forth without dropping the ball. He liked the session so much that we stopped the competition and started playing catch most days before work."

"Is he working tonight?" asks the entrepreneur.

The bartender steps back to reveal a framed photo on the wall. In the photo, a short, balding man shakes President Obama's hand. A bronze plaque underneath reads: "Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching."

"He teaches high school biology now. His students even play catch some days - as a warmup for joint projects. He says it's a good reminder that working together is more important than winning or losing..."

"We're familiar with the concept of collaboration," says the first billionaire. "And while you're clearly captivated by the career arc of your friend - the high school biology teacher - , the fact remains that my glass is empty. And I'm thirsty. So if you want a tip, bartender, why don't you stop preaching at us and just do your job."

He turns to the other billionaire, and they begin bidding again.

The bartender leaves without a word, returning a short time later with three glasses of imported heffeweizen (7.2 % ABV). He sets them down and goes over to a large chalk board with "DRINKS" scrawled across the top. It holds hundreds of tallies. He adds three more.

"Excuse me," says the first billionaire, pulling out his wallet. "We don't need credit."

"None offered," says the bartender. "The beers are on me."

The entrepreneur smiles and takes a sip - but not the billionaires, who insist on paying. The bartender just waves them off.

"I try to read my clients," he explains. "Give them what they need. Of course, I don't comp drinks if the customers are inebriated or driving. And I only comp if they're having something to eat with their drinks..."

"But we're not eating ..." says the second billionaire.

Just then, a waitress arrives with three dishes of organic olives, jerk chicken wings with bacon-fat guacamole and a big plate of shoestring-fried kumara (from New Zealand).

The entrepreneur bursts out laughing and helps herself to the kumara. But the two men just feel outflanked and annoyed. They stare at the bartender, silently demanding an explanation.

The bartender points to the other end of the bar. There, the waitress is chalking up three more tallies on another chalk board entitled "FOOD."

"What do you mean you give your clients what they need?" says the first billionaire. "It's obvious we can pay."

The bartender shrugs. "I have a deal with the owner. As long as the weekly take goes up, I don't have to pay for any of the drinks I comp. And I don't have to explain why I comp the way I do. Not to him, not to my customers. So far, I've never had to pay..... I love my job."

"Disruptive marketing model," says the entrepreneur, nodding. "High employee satisfaction linked to bottom line performance. Nice.... But how do you make money?"

"I don't have to give out free beer and food. It's my call. Besides, most people are eager to pay when they come in again. And they do come in again. They love to share the story of the tally board with their friends and explain how they got free drinks out the blue."

"So it's creating brand loyalty," says the entrepreneur.

"They feel good," says the bartender. "They belong. The tallies count not what they owe, but what they've been given. The tallies remind them that they're welcome here."

After a moment, the first billionaire nods, raises his beer toward the bartender with new respect and takes a long drink.

The second billionaire raises his glass, too. "Your system for customer relations -- I'd like to talk to you about that later. There should be an ap for it."

"There already is," says the bartender. He looks at the baseball gloves - one of which, the entrepreneur has already slipped on her hand.

"Now," she says, "before I decide who I might partner with on this deal - anyone want to play catch?"

This story is fictional.

Cross-posted on "Thinking Philanthropy."