How One Stock Changes Everything

Where were you in August 1994, and what were you doing? When I tell you where I was, you won't believe it (of course, you'll have to read to the end to find out).

I hope you were buying stocks at least
I wasn't. I sure wasn't betting $1,800 on a company you'd never heard of. But somebody was, and he was about to make a lot of money. I know this for two reasons.

First, that one trade made this guy a legend in these parts. Second, this Fool shouted his intentions before he went long, then tracked his returns online for the world to see.

Five years later, his split-adjusted 46-cent shares crested atop $50. Before you could say "Mad Money," Money.com crowned him "among the most widely followed stock market advisors in the world," and his $1,800 stake ballooned to $190,000.

Yes, you read that right
That stock was America Online -- and the investor was David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool. True, we were in the midst of a massive bull market -- and this was before the disastrous merger with Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) -- but there may have been more at work here than that.

In 1994, AOL satisfied David's No. 1 criteria. It was a first mover in an important, potentially massive, emerging industry. Yes, the stock has been pounded since, but one thing may surprise you. David's AOL investment is still up.

Way up. If you'd bought AOL with him, you'd be up 3,813%. If you foresaw the technology revolution and bought any number of other future tech titans -- for example, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) or Applied Materials (Nasdaq: AMAT  ) instead, you'd be up roughly 900% or 500%, respectively.

Even if you rolled the dice on beleaguered Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) or Corning (NYSE: GLW  ) , a glass company since held up as the poster child for the tech stock bubble, you'd be sitting on triple-digit gains -- ahead of what you'd expect from almost all non-equity investments.

I'm shocked, shocked to hear ...
Maybe that doesn't surprise you, but it did me. In fact, it's got me rethinking two long-held beliefs. The first ended in an affirmation; the second, an epiphany. First, the affirmation.

Folks like us looking to save for the future as we approach middle age have to keep investing. For me, that means buying stocks, whether the market looks overvalued, cheap, or just right -- and not selling. That last part goes double if you manage to catch lightning in a bottle.

After all, it's true that AOL wasn't the only great call in David's original Rule Breaker portfolio. He also recommended Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN  ) and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) in 1998 and 1999, respectively. But if you take away that one 3,813% winner, David looks human, right? More on that just ahead.

But first, the epiphany!
Slow and steady may not win the race. As you may know, I typically side with David's stodgy brother Tom -- citing data supporting Warren Buffett's steady-as-she-goes, win-by-never-losing value approach to investing.

But I wonder: What if David's right to point out that, most nights, we can get by with just a few big swings? After all, nine out of every 10 stocks we buy can go to zero and we'll still break even -- if we find just one 10-bagger.

And that's a "mere" 10-bagger -- a solid 1,000% gainer. Now, what if you smack a 3,813% home run? I'll let you run the numbers.

Because I have news for you ...
"The Tortoise and the Hare" isn't a true story. It's not even based on one. Take away AOL, Amgen, and eBay ... and David's pretty average. But that's crazy talk. You don't compare the batting average of a singles hitter with that of a slugger.

The fact is, David's kamikaze style works over the long run. And not just in the go-go '90s. In 2004, David launched a new Rule Breakers newsletter to prove he could find this decade's great growth stories.

How does he plan on pulling it off? For starters, he runs every company through a six-point checklist:

  1. Is it the top dog and first mover in an important, emerging industry?
  2. Does it have a sustainable advantage?
  3. Does it have strong past price appreciation?
  4. Is good management in place with smart backing?
  5. Does it have strong consumer appeal?
  6. Has it been called overvalued by the media?

Looking to hit one out of the park?
If you can find a stock with all six traits, you have a Rule Breaker in the making. And so far, so good? Already, 11 of David's newsletter picks have tripled. One pick is up more than 600%. Overall, his 48% average return is beating the broader market's 17%.

By all means, feel free to use David's six-point checklist to get started. If you want a shortcut getting rolling (who doesn't?), here's an easy idea to consider: Take a free trial of David's Motley Fool Rule Breakers. You can test-drive the complete service for one whole month, see all the past picks, and read every back issue, without paying a cent. There's no obligation to subscribe. To take your swing, click here.

This article was first published May 31, 2007. It has been updated.

In 1994, Paul Elliott was writing bad poetry and banging around the Midwest in a Ford Econoline. He doesn't own any of the stocks mentioned. Microsoft and Intel are Inside Value recommendations. eBay and Time Warner are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. You can see all of David Gardner's Rule Breaker picks and his entire scorecard with your 30-day free trial. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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