Investing in companies that shape and benefit from influential trends can be a path to life-changing returns. With the new year kicking off and a multitude of world-altering business shifts underway, investors have opportunities to build positions in industry leaders that will play major roles in shaping the future. 

Read on for a look at three innovative companies that stand out as great buys this month. 

1. Amazon

Since its public debut in 1997, few stocks have delivered better performance than Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN). Perhaps even more importantly, it looks like the company's growth story is still just getting started.

A dollar sign in a lightbulb.

Image source: Getty Images.

High-level execution and a willingness to take risks helped Amazon to pivot from a specialized online book retailer to a general purpose e-commerce platform. These same characteristics allowed the company to build a leadership position in the cloud computing space with its Amazon Web Services (AWS), and it once again secured a forefront position in voice-based tech with its Echo and Alexa hardware and software platforms.

The e-commerce platform still gets most of the attention because that's what most people interact with on a regular basis. But CEO Jeff Bezos and his team have had a monumental string of innovation successes, and the business is well-positioned to continue delivering disruptive innovations. When the history books tell of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics decades from now, Amazon will almost certainly be named as a major player in these transformative fields.

The company's core e-commerce and cloud computing businesses have never seemed stronger, and Amazon continues to look highly versatile and adaptable. It is one of the best companies in the world, and it stands out as one of the best stocks you can buy to start the new year. 

2. Zuora

There are plenty of tech stocks that posted big gains in 2020 that will continue to strong performance over the long term. Winners often tend to keep winning.

On the other hand, investors seeking portfolio-elevating results will likely also be well served by focusing on some underappreciated companies that sat out the incredible rally for tech stocks over the last year. Within that category, Zuora (NYSE:ZUO) stands out as a stock that has the potential to deliver huge wins for patient investors, and it looks like a great buy this January. 

Zuora provides a software platform that allows businesses to easily automate subscription-based business models. Within the broader subscription system, the company's software allows its business customers to choose from a huge selection of specialized subscription variations and support a huge variety of currencies and payment processors. 

With the stock down roughly 8% over the last year and significantly underperforming both the S&P 500 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite indexes, Zuora is looking very attractive in the context of its growth potential. 

ZUO Chart

ZUO data by YCharts.

Economic uncertainty last year meant that Zuora faced significantly slower customer acquisition, but the long-term growth for the subscription economy still looks like a safe bet. With a market cap of roughly $1.6 billion, Zuora is still in a small-cap territory and looks cheaply valued at 5.3 times this year's expected sales. This is a relatively young company that's operating at the intersection of some powerful market shifts, and it could deliver huge wins.

3. Upwork

For all the innovation and disruption that many gig-economy companies have brought to a multitude of industries, the potential for more work to shift to a freelance or short-term contract basis is still hugely underappreciated. Upwork (NASDAQ:UPWK) stands to benefit from the growth of gig work, and its stock has appealing upside for long-term investors.

Upwork operates a platform that connects freelance workers with clients. The company's year-over-year sales growth of roughly 24% in the third quarter might not look like much compared to some other high-flying names in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) space. But the business still has tremendous room for expansion, and the stock has huge potential for growth. Upwork is priced at roughly five times this year's expected sales, which looks attractive when you factor in the opportunities the company has for continued expansion and the gross margins (73% in the third quarter) the company is maintaining that already suggest big profit potential down the line. 

Upwork stands out as a promising bet on the ongoing growth of the gig economy. The valuation still looks cheap compared to the broader SaaS industry, and strong industry tailwinds and impressive execution suggest the business can crush expectations and build growth opportunities in new categories. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.