Strike up the marching band, light a sparkler, and raise your commemorative mug, because this is Stock Advisor's 200th consecutive month of stock recommendations! That's right -- we've been bringing you our best investing ideas without interruption each month since March 2002. It's been a wild ride, and some of you have been on it from the start. If you're one of them, and if you've acted on every single recommendation, then you've enjoyed a market-obliterating return of 1,955% over the past 16 years. We hope the journey has been as fun and rewarding for you as it has been for us.

It's fitting that we should reach this milestone in the same year Stock Advisor celebrated its Sweet 16 -- and a sweet year it's been, with the service cruising to a 45% gain as of mid-October while the broader market has yet to leave the driveway.

Of course, we Fools don't spend much time reveling in short-term gains (or dwelling on short-term losses). And today's missive, much like Stock Advisor's approach to investing, is all about the long term and the big picture. We're sharing the story of the service Tom and David started 16 years ago, never guessing it might someday help hundreds of thousands of investors become savvier, wealthier, and (most importantly) happier.

In 2002, the market and The Motley Fool were reeling from the dot-com crash. As Tom and David fought to pull the company back from the brink, they realized we had yet to discover our true purpose -- a business that could not only thrive, but also change the world for the better. A band of Fools put their heads together, and eventually they turned to a project the Gardner brothers had been working on for nine years: a monthly newsletter featuring one stock pick from Tom and one from David.

Tom and David Gardner wearing suits and jester caps

Tom and David Gardner circa 2002.

It was a friendly competition: Both of them aimed to beat the market by investing in one stock every month. They tracked the performance of their real-money portfolios and published the results, as well as the lessons they learned. During this nine-year experiment, they achieved annualized returns of more than 20% versus the market's 12%. By 2002, they felt ready to turn their newsletter into a service that would create value for investors around the world.

Thus Stock Advisor was born. It was designed to be a simple product with a simple investing strategy. Tom and David -- who had spent years studying the likes of Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, and Benjamin Graham -- knew that the clearest path to long-term wealth was to buy great companies and hold them for years, if not forever.

"One of the things that I love about Stock Advisor is that we've created a service that is so easy to use," says David. "There's a lot of other advice out there that's so short-term, and if you try to follow that, it can exhaust you. It's not easy at all."

The Motley Fool partnered with a local publisher to produce Stock Advisor and mail it to our subscribers. Though it originally came in print form, the newsletter looked much like it does now. Each issue included a pair of stock recommendations, a detailed explanation of each pick, some updates on previous recs, and some clear, levelheaded commentary on investing.

Take, for instance, this passage from the August 2002 issue:

If you find yourself turning away from the market these days, you're not alone. Too many people have been burned (or know someone who has) by the Enrons, WorldComs and Lucents (and their auditors) of the business world, to the point of fearing individual stock ownership. ... But think about it: Recessions create some of the greatest buying opportunities for patient investors. ... When the market is down, it's not just a difficult time we have to get through. It's also a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of the beaten-down prices of some good companies. So if you've been waiting for signs of a turnaround before getting back in the market, we strongly urge you to shift gears.

The market began to rebound in early 2003 and then enjoyed a nearly five-year bull market. While neither David nor Tom will claim to be clairvoyant, they both understand a simple concept that Tom summed up in the very first issue of Stock Advisor:

In our view, American capitalism is resilient and mostly free, and has created the most powerful economy the world has ever known. So long as we protect and nurture it, its stocks will continue to rise more than they fall.

The Gardner brothers' straightforward, anyone-can-do-it style of advice resonated with readers, and within a year, Stock Advisor had tens of thousands of subscribers. That early success allowed us to buy the full rights to Stock Advisor back from our publisher, take the service in house, and turn it into something much bigger.

We built the website and created discussion boards where investors can ask questions and share ideas. Over time, we've added online performance scorecards, watchlists that help you follow our coverage on your favorite stocks, the popular "Best Buys Now" list, guides for new investors, and more. With every change, our goal has been to make it easier for our members to find the best advice for them.

The Gardner brothers have also learned some valuable lessons on investing while leading the company they co-founded 25 years ago. As they've worked to make the Fool a famously great place to work, they've come to appreciate the value of corporate culture and a healthy, happy workforce. They've also become firm believers in Conscious Capitalism -- the philosophy that businesses should strive to serve the best interests of all their stakeholders, including customers, employees, vendors, and the surrounding community. Making money and making the world a better place are not mutually exclusive -- in fact, many of the companies that do the most good do the best.

Or, as David likes to say: "Make your portfolio reflect your best vision for our future."

That said, Stock Advisor's strategy hasn't changed for the most part. Tom and David, each supported by a crack team of analysts, continue to recommend one stock apiece every month. They still like companies with visionary leaders, sustainable competitive advantages, and unrecognized potential. And why mess with an approach that has beaten the market by more than 1,800% over the last 16 years?

If you're not yet sold on buy-and-hold, consider that Stock Advisor's most absurdly successful picks are among its earliest. Take Netflix, which we recommended shortly after Tom and David interviewed CEO Reed Hastings in 2003. That position is up more than 14,000%.

Amazon, pitched by David in 2002, is now up more than 11,000%.

Amazon.com has emerged as the biggest pure-play in e-commerce. The company is generating billions of dollars in annual sales and -- the key for us going forward -- these are finally profitable sales.

What's behind the success? A company fanatically focused on customer satisfaction, and a brilliant, entrepreneurial CEO.

Of course, Stock Advisor's recommendations haven't all been grand slams.

"My first two stocks were dogs," says David. "I picked Schwab, which just didn't move for the following six years. I also picked Electronic Arts. They're both great companies, but I held Electronic Arts for a while before it dropped 60% and I disconsolately sold it."

The list of stinkers goes on. However, as every Fool knows, one big winner can make up for a lot of losers -- and then some. Care to guess what David's next pick was? Here's what he had to say in his July 2002 write-up:

Spider-Man the movie has just proven that comic book characters represent valuable assets across many media platforms besides just the original comic book. ... You're now looking at about 4,700 superheroes as individual licensable assets in a "portfolio of media properties."

Yep, that would be Marvel. Those who bought in July 2002 and held on -- through Disney's $4.2 billion acquisition of the company and the conversion of Marvel shares to Disney shares -- are now sitting on gains of over 5,000%.

We're certainly proud of the returns Stock Advisor has achieved. However, the true success story is in how those gains have changed our subscribers' lives.

"Over the years the Stock Advisor recommendations have increased my net worth at least tenfold," says member Jerold Polt. "I am now retired and living comfortably. I travel fairly often and intend to continue exploring our beautiful planet."

Meanwhile, Kathleen Dewhirst, who has subscribed to Stock Advisor since it launched, is using part of her gains to give her grandchildren a brighter future.

"We opened and funded college accounts for our grandchildren and then established an IRA for each when they turned 18."

As we mentioned above, however, we want to make our members not only wealthier, but wiser, too. And we're happy to know we've helped some investors make smarter decisions with their money.

"Stock Advisor has helped me stay the course so I did not sell after market downturns and then buy back in after big run-ups, which obviously is a losing strategy," says John Wilson. "So I have appreciated emotional support and cool heads during difficult times."

Whatever your financial dreams, we hope to help you achieve them. Our work means more to us than percentages on paper. To close, let's return to that first issue of Stock Advisor for a moment:

Welcome! What you hold in your hand is precious to us. Why? Because it represents, month in and month out, our best investment ideas.

You may not be able to hold our newsletters anymore, but the sentiment remains true: Our work is precious to us, as is the success of our members. So, whether you've been a member for 16 years or 16 minutes, here's to many more years of learning, beating the market, and enjoying the ride!

Sincerely,
Your friends at The Motley Fool

The Gardner brothers outside The Motley Fool's headquarters

The Gardner brothers outside The Motley Fool's Alexandria, Va. headquarters.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway (B shares) and Electronic Arts. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.