Ask any great chef and they'll tell you: Cooking isn't an exact science, it's an art.

That statement reminds me of my grandmother's pot roast. (My mouth is watering just thinking about it!) She makes the best pot roast and nobody, I mean nobody, can duplicate it, even if they have her recipe. You could stand behind her looking over her shoulder measuring every pinch of this and every dash of that, but you'd never be able to make it the way she does. Somehow she just knows when to turn the meat, and how long to brown the potatoes, and how often the lid can be lifted without releasing too much flavor. There's more to it than formulas and exact measurements: It's an art.

The same goes for investing. In last year's Rule Maker 2000 Online Seminar, we spent more than 12 lessons educating you on the finer points of the quantitative criteria of Rule Maker investing. We walked you through the numbers with Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO), Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL), and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO), and I'm sure you still had questions. Investing is not paint by numbers, and there certainly is not a single formula for success. It's an art.

Over the past two weeks, we've dedicated eight columns to the Rule Maker financial criteria so that on Monday, in our 2001 online seminar -- The Art of Rule Maker -- we can all hit the ground running and get right into our revamped qualitative criteria: sustainable competitive advantages, great management, expanding possibilities, and a reasonable purchase price.

That's right, a reasonable purchase price -- one that allows us to at least double our money in five years -- is now officially one of our investment criteria. In case you've been living under a rock and not reading this column on a daily basis (you'd better have been trapped under that rock!), the gang here at Rule Maker Central is now concerned with valuation. Yeah, yeah, we know -- especially Tom, it's his money after all -- the market's been brutal. Believe me, we know.

Could valuation have saved you from the carnage? Not a chance in H-E-double toothpicks, but it may have hurt a little less. As Zeke pointed out in January, great companies make good investments but great companies purchased on sale or at reasonable valuations make great investments. Toward the end of the seminar, Matt will walk you through a three-step process in valuing Cisco. This lesson lays down a framework for valuing companies based on price-to-free-cash-flow ranges and intimate knowledge of the company. Remember, there are no shortcuts or substitutes for understanding your investments. Sound like too much work? Buy an index fund.

But, I've gotten out of turn here. Valuation is one of the last lessons. Lessons 2 and 3 (after the intro lesson) zero in on competition and competitive advantages. In Lesson 2, Rich walks you through the five competitive forces and provides examples for each that even your cousin Eddie will understand. You know, the one who giggles every time you mention naked calls.

In Lesson 3, the Maker team has collaborated on a list of sustainable competitive advantages, with real-world examples of each. We're kinda into this example thing. We walk you through ways to spot competitive advantages like de facto standard, consumer monopoly, low-cost producer, and many others. Here's a hint on sustainable competitive advantages: it's all about differentiation.

In Lesson 4, Phil highlights the traits that define great management teams. Borrowing from Philip A. Fisher, author of Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, he covers issues like unquestionable integrity, a long-range outlook, and open communication. You didn't think we thought up this stuff first, did ya? We are merely students of the masters trying to teach our disciples. OK, that sounds a little cultish, but you get the point. Now all of you can remove your remarkably similar Nikes, circle around the altar, and we'll continue.

Lesson 5 is a look into the future, and Zeke provides three simple questions to ask about a prospective investment idea that will force you to consider a company's expanding possibilities. And guess what, he provides examples from companies such as Schering-Plough (NYSE: SGP) and Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO).

That brings us full circle, back to valuation. Folks, sentiment is lousy, expectations are being trimmed, and brokers are scared of their own shadows these days. It's time to test your moxie as well as Warren Buffett's theory that declining valuations are actually favorable to long-term investors. Join us for our seminar and you'll also get our Top 25 Rule Maker ideas. For each of the 25, it sums up the essence (in about 500 words) of our favorite Rule Makers. Many of these ideas, along with our current holdings, are trading at multi-year or even all-time lows with respect to price-to-free-cash-flow. There is no better time than the present to start your own Rule Maker portfolio.

One last thought. We've been coming at you pretty hard with seminar promo for the last few weeks and if it was distracting, annoying, or overdone, we apologize. Research tells us that we must hit our customers seven times before they get the message. So, perhaps nine was overkill, but if you're reading this, you can't be that tired of our thoughts. So, rest those brains this weekend and join us on Monday for the start of The Art of Rule Maker.

Fool on.

Todd Lebor can be hired to write shameless plugs for your company, too. Just email him or look for him scrounging for loose change in your local water fountain. Todd owns shares of Cisco and Oracle, and his other holdings can be found on his personal profile.The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.