Quick! Name a company where customers identify themselves by harkening its brand. I can only think of a few, most notably "MacHEADS" who love Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and the Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG ) "Hogs" (short for "Harley Owners Group"). These are names of affection, and their existence attests to an almost magical quality about these brands that elevates the relationship from company/customer to something far greater. The customers belong to the company, and vice versa.
There is one other group I can think of that meets this definition. They call themselves "Fools."
"The Motley Fool" is, of course, a silly name. It was so when David and Tom Gardner founded The Motley Fool in 1993, and it is so today. But from the outset, we determined that we would call ourselves "Fools," in homage to the one character in Shakespearean literature who had the ability to speak the truth to the king. For the past 15 years, we've aimed to talk plainly about investing, about money, about helping people empower themselves to take control of their own financial lives.
Plus, we've had a lot of fun along the way.
If you think about it, the 15 years of the Fool's history have been marked by extraordinary rates of change. I recently thumbed through a copy of the first edition of David and Tom's first book, the best-selling The Motley Fool Investment Guide. To this day I consider it one of the great resources to teach the basics of investing. But to reflect on just how quickly our process of gathering information about stocks has changed, consider the advice we gave in the book, first published in 1996. To get a company's basic financial documents, "pick up the phone and give 'em a call."
In 1993 the Internet was still in its "gee whiz" phase. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) didn't exist. Neither did Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) . Most Americans who invested in common stocks (and there were far fewer) found out how their stocks did by reading the (gasp!) newspaper the following day. Real-time quotes? Why would someone need them? Online access to financial documents? The Securities and Exchange Commission was just starting to come to the conclusion that it might be a good idea.
It wasn't until 1999 that Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) had a website at all. It wasn't alone. Few companies had figured out that there was much to gain by speaking directly with their individual investors. In fact (we'll come to this), the general practice of the day was for companies to give privileged information to Wall Street analysts, and for them to issue reports for consumption by the masses.
The Internet changed all of this. We like to think that we helped. What David and Tom knew was that there was no one out there who had an interest in having individual investors become educated. Their brokers were glorified salespeople, pushing stocks like they were products. Their mutual fund companies were asset gatherers, patronizing individuals by pretending what they did was rocket science.
"What they did," of course, was lose to the market averages over time. Like that's hard.
We've had lots of fun along the way. We've celebrated April 1, the Fool's favorite holiday, by "apologizing" for reading a chart on mutual fund performance upside down, launching a fake penny-stock scam, and even shutting down our site for six months. (Not really.)
Our workplace has won awards, been highlighted as one of America's great places of employment. Anyone who has set foot in Fool HQ instantly knows this is a different kind of place, from the brightly colored walls to the ceramic Elvis bust (here because my wife won't let it in the house ...) to the yoga room to the utterly casual work environment. It is a place where it seems miraculous that things get done. There is a lot of laughter within these walls.
And yet the reason things do get done is because The Motley Fool is a place with a passion and a purpose. We are a commercial enterprise, we have investors, and a board, and goals -- just like any other company. Make no doubt about it. But we also never, ever forget that our basic standard of success is whether we have enriched people's lives in an extremely direct way. Sure, we like you to laugh with us -- even laugh at us. We think the world of finance is pretty droll and self-important (or alternately, hyper and overwrought). If you come back because you want to know if Tom Gardner's really been attacked by a lemur, well, that's all right by us.
The Motley Fool is a company with a mission, and it was from the outset. We didn't want to manage your money. What we did want to do was help you make better financial decisions. This was pretty revolutionary. In 1995, The Economist said, "Part of the Fool's attraction is that it stands out as an ethical oasis in an area that is fast becoming a home to charlatans running penny-stock schemes to woo the gullible."
Our passion to help investors has gone beyond teaching. In 2000, The Motley Fool led an individual investor drive to support the Securities and Exchange Commission's proposed "Regulation FD," which served to level the access to corporate information for all investors. The SEC chairman at the time, Arthur Levitt, stated that the Fool was "as close to being an effective investor advocate as any organization in America."
In 1998, David Gardner testified before a congressional committee urging greater transparency in the mutual fund industry. In 2001, The Motley Fool was invited to testify before the Senate in the aftermath of the collapse of Enron. We've been invited to speak many times -- to regulators, institutions, and most of all, to investors.
In 2006 we released our revolutionary stock rating system, CAPS, to help investors share research with one another about stocks around the globe. And in 2007, I had the honor of being named the representative of the individual investor to a special committee to advise the SEC on improving financial reporting to make it more useful for all investors.
But The Motley Fool isn't about what we've done. The core of our company is our community. We have a simple theory about the power of the global investor -- that no matter what we think or how much we know, there is someone out there on any topic who knows a lot more, and that we can learn from her. It's a model that has enriched our experience beyond our wildest dreams. We are not the teachers. On most days, as we attempt to gain slightly more understanding about the workings of the stock market, we find ourselves the taught.
And we wouldn't have it any other way.
Celebrate our 15-Year Anniversary with more Foolishness:
- Your Retirement Is Now a Lot More Complicated
- The Revolution Will Be Securitized
- This Is the New Financial World Order
- A Strategy for Enormous Wealth
- The IPO Class of 1993
- Fool Audio: 15 Years of Fool Radio
- Out of the Dark Ages of Investing
- The Bright and Dark Sides of Progress
- Foolish Predictions for the Next 15 Years
- 15 Years of Success and Community
- 15 Years of Fooling Around
- 15 Years, 15 Great Posts
Bill Mann does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Starbucks. Starbucks is an Inside Value recommendation. Apple is a Stock Advisor selection. Google is a Rule Breakers recommendation. You can read more about the Fool's disclosure policy right here.