Let's play a game. I'll say a word and you tell me the first thing that pops into your head.
Rule Breaker. For me, it's a blur -- a whirlwind winter into spring during which I made a small fortune then lost it. Y2k.
One stock rocket
I heard the term Rule Breaker in December 1999. I'd received a call from a science guy who would later cross to Wall Street's dark side. This particular morning, he was salivating over a genome maverick based in my hometown. I bought the stock, which after a listless summer, heated up in the fall -- then Boom!
Before I knew it, this one flyer was my entire portfolio. And it was doubling weekly. News flow was positive, but this had to be something else. Turns out, a fellow named David Gardner at The Motley Fool had tapped the stock for a spot in his Rule Breaker real-money portfolio. At last -- I'd stumbled in front of a freight train.
It's not what you think
Rule Breakers and Rule Breaker investing is back, but it may not be what you think. As fate would have it, David Gardner's path crossed mine and, when it did, David told me directly what a Rule Breaker is. Today, I'll pass that on to you.
First, it's not all about tech. True, David added AOL, Amazon.com, and Amgen to the original Rule Breaker portfolio between 1994 and 1998, and all left millionaires in their wakes. And this may really surprise you: All three were still way in the money at the market bottom.
But to hear it from David himself -- who, by the way, still owns all three -- it's low-tech Starbucks that's the consummate Rule Breaker. Why? Because Starbucks sensed a need and, when it did, it not only met that need, it changed the landscape of our world in the process.
It's a wonderful world
For context, imagine the havoc wreaked by General Motors (NYSE: GM ) and Disney (NYSE: DIS ) on a generation or three before. Low-tech, perhaps, but a wired world without Starbucks is about as thinkable as one without Sirius Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , or eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) -- all arguably Rule Breakers in their own right.
But here's what really makes Starbucks a Rule Breaker: There's no second fiddle. I mean, where's the Pepsi to Starbucks' Coke? There isn't one. Starbucks is a Rule Breaker. If you bought the stock in the late 1990s, you're one, too. To this day, second best isn't even on the horizon.
Lesson 1: It's not all about tech. Exhibit A: Starbucks.
Martha, Martha, Martha
Still not low-tech enough? Back in 2002, the original Rule Breaker portfolio had been closed and David Gardner and his brother, Tom, launched Motley Fool Stock Advisor. But my impressions of The Motley Fool were still tangled with the human genome, Amazon, and the legend of David moving early into AOL and eBay. One word would change all that.
Martha. As in Martha Stewart. Mark Hulbert is the watchdog of the investment newsletter industry and, if memory serves me, Hulbert mentioned that David was the only advisor recommending Martha Stewart's embattled namesake to his readers. Small wonder -- Martha was a pariah.
That was November 2002. The stock was trading at $6.03. It's around $30 today. David closed out Martha Stewart in July 2004 at $9.05, a decision -- which he calls his worst in years -- that locked in a 50% gain. I should be so lucky. Here, I learned two lessons in one.
Lesson 2: Buy when there's blood in the streets -- especially if you have faith in the business, the financials, and most of all, the brand. Lesson 3: Let your winners run. Exhibit B: Martha Stewart.
Who's breaking the rules today?
As always, you'll find Rule Breakers in unexpected places. In addition to being the greatest band to escape Glasgow and a very pretty river, Blue Nileis quietly revolutionizing the way diamonds and fine jewelry are sold. But in the words of David Gardner, it's the company's "understanding of its customer and extreme focus" that sets Blue Nile apart.
Or how about Shanda Interactive (Nasdaq: SNDA ) ? Shanda is top dog in the growing market for "massively multiplayer online role-playing games" in China. If you're a player, you know what I'm talking about. If not, just know that this is big business. I love that the business is subscription-based (pay me now, use me later) and hugely levered -- profit margins hover above 40% on revenues growing more than 100% year over year.
Closer to home -- and as ridiculous as it sounds -- much the same holds for Taser (Nasdaq: TASR ) . That's right, I said it. Is Taser dramatically undervalued? No, but we're still talking about a market cap of less than $1 billion -- even after rising thousands of time in value, then getting clunked on the head. Profit margins are generous, as are cash flows from operations. Folks are scared stiff -- even after the painful sell-off.
The fact is, beyond periods of real mania, most investors don't like to pay up for growth -- even unbridled growth. Unless you get in at the very bottom -- like David did with AOL in 1994 -- it is almost always painful to buy these stocks. Which is precisely why, in the right situation, buying these mavericks -- these Rule Breakers -- can turbocharge your returns.
Fair warning: Admit that you're eyeing Taser and people call you crazy. Is buying Taser -- it is on the Rule Breakers Scorecard -- today a little risky? Darn right it is. Taser is no place for the emergency cash or the college fund. On the other hand, where's the Pepsi to Taser's Coke? Great growth stocks are never cheap, and there's a funny thing about people: They're often wrong.
Lesson 4: Don't listen to people. Exhibit C: Taser.
Are you one?
Rule Breaker. It's a blast from the past, but I'm real happy to hear it again. I'm one myself -- just ask the local authorities. And for the record, I rode my genome wonder all the way up and too much of the way back down. That little lesson cost me.
Lesson 5: Be prepared to sell if the underlying story falls apart. Exhibit D: Celera Genomics.
So, what makes a Rule Breaker investor? I asked David Gardner that very question. "Simply, it's one who can embrace the contrary nature of paying up for great growth stocks." That's straight from the horse's mouth. Should you take David's word for it? I would.
Some stunning performance
Researching this column, I ran some numbers. Turns out, when David officially shuttered his real-money Rule Breaker portfolio, he'd managed a 20.1% annualized return. That was in mid-2002, after the bear market. Compare that to 9.1% for the S&P and 7.3% for the Nasdaq over the same period.
Put another way, the $87,500 invested in the real-money portfolio between August 1994 and April 2002 was worth more than $300,000 when the portfolio officially closed in February 2003 -- after the bear market had run its course. Those are the kinds of results that made legends of Peter Lynch and Bill Miller, and rightfully so.
What to do now?
I don't claim that this is anything but an introduction. Aggressive growth investing is not for everyone -- certainly not for all of anyone's assets.
But let's face it, the very best investments are the stocks of high-growth companies -- upstarts that come from nowhere and change our world. Companies like Amazon, AOL, and maybe even Blue Nile and Taser.
The trick, of course, is spotting these companies and having the courage to take the plunge when you do. I don't have to tell you that this can be scary business. Isolation is especially deadly. If you'd rather not go it alone, David Gardner is offering a 30-day free trial to his Motley Fool Rule Breakers advisory service. To learn more, or to take him up on this offer, simply click here.
Fool writer Paul Elliott owns Celera. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.