The following is part of our week-long Rule Breaker series, where we Foolishly examine several companies and ask, "Is it a Rule Breaker?" Hey, even better, we'll answer the question for you.
Last year, had I asked whether eBay
Last winter, I wrote a commentary that sported one of the most contrary headlines I believe I have ever penned -- I Hate eBay. I pointed out all the elements of this stock that I missed when I first learned of the company. And, of course, the upshot of the story was that while I'd missed the boat on the positive aspects of eBay way back in the day, I now had to admit the things that were genius about it, which resulted in its incredible growth trajectory over the ensuing years.
What's the difference?
The eBay that many of us know and love is a company that first broke all the rules way back in 1995 by creating an Internet auction service where anyone could buy or sell new or used goods. Later down the line, it further innovated by purchasing PayPal, which is now one of the most popular and well-known ways through which folks pay for online goods.
During this time, eBay delivered stellar growth and profit margins that would make other online retailers, such as Amazon.com
Recently, though, eBay has hit some speed bumps. Back in the fall, its mightiness might have been somewhat undermined by service outages that outraged some users. Meanwhile, the company became a repository for news of the weird, as strange things seemed to pop up for sale on eBay on a regular basis. While that may heighten its pop-culture status, longtime Fool Rick Munarriz has opined that perhaps this freak factor might hinder the company in the long run, not help it.
Disruption junction, what's your function?
One of the tenets of being a Rule Breaker is to take an industry and absolutely turn it upside down -- if not create an entirely new industry space altogether. It's arguable that before Internet commerce was commonplace, pioneers such as eBay and Amazon proved their ground -- that people would go shopping online, embrace it even.
However, eBay took that one step forward in being a disruptive force. Who would have thought that the equivalent of your garden-variety yard sale could go on over the Internet? And that tons and tons of people would take to such a bazaar? Nobody would have suspected it, and in that way, eBay utterly broke the rules.
And of course, that kind of disruptive energy is exactly why eBay was able to carve itself a niche where it could deliver the kinds of profits and revenue figures that investors grew accustomed to, year after year.
However, such disruption lasts only so long; sooner or later, changing the rules simply means a new rule has been created, and other companies enter the fray.
Rule Breakers tend to have little or no meaningful competition. For many years, eBay achieved just that. When was the last time you heard of somebody buying or selling something at auction on Amazon.com or Yahoo!
This might have gone on for years, with little cessation, but these days, there are companies gunning for eBay's superiority. Overstock.com
And seemingly out of nowhere, a small operation called craigslist has suddenly become part of the common vernacular -- and a frequent stop for people looking to do business with one another. (It's not surprising that eBay wanted a stake in that operation.) Odd that such a grassroots, scaled-down operation could step so easily -- and so effectively -- into eBay's turf after eBay's long dominance.
Star management and founders
eBay fulfills another so-called rule of Rule Breaking because it has a world-class management team that has been on board since the very beginning. President and CEO Meg Whitman has become one of the most well-known corporate heads in recent history, and founder Pierre Omidyar continues to have a hand in the company's affairs as chairman.
Among the many things to admire about eBay and its management team is the way they navigated the company through the dot-com bust and subsequent recession in an exemplary manner. It not only survived some pretty scarce salad days, it flourished -- because its business promised shoppers bargains.
Whitman often finds herself on or near the top of lists that define the most influential CEOs. She recently made the top spot on Fortune's "Most Powerful Women in Business" list. Old-media stalwart Disney
The growth game
Ah yes, the most important part of Rule Breaking is the potential for explosive growth in sales and earnings. And that's exactly what eBay delivered for years and years, driving its premium stock price ever higher while investors paid up for the privilege of owning a piece of this amazing growth company.
But that's exactly where the crux of our problem is -- the puzzle as to whether eBay can be defined as a Rule Breaker. While we may have been able to make that argument for years, the hints of slowdown today are difficult to ignore in the Rule Breaking sense. So far this year, we are only looking at about 30% overall growth in revenues. No, this is certainly nothing to complain about, and a level that most companies would envy, but compared to the eBay in its prime -- when 40% to 50% increases were hardly unusual -- it's not quite exciting enough.
While there's definitely evidence that eBay is back on track, investors might look elsewhere for the real heady gains. Some Fools have also opined that with the current outlook, the argument to pay eBay's premium stock price comes up a bit empty.
Fast-forward, futuristic investing
You might have guessed that I don't think eBay is currently a Rule Breaker. Was eBay once a Rule Breaker? Yes, definitely. And if the Internet auctioneer should explode into some new area that begins to really jumpstart some supercharged sales and earnings momentum, it certainly could be again.
Is eBay a bad company, one that investors shouldn't own? By no means is that the case. It still runs a superior business with perfectly decent earnings and sales, especially with the latest quarter showing it's on the mend. In many ways, it's a company that investors can still feel quite glad to own -- however, with a $42.9 billion market cap, it stands to reason that the amount of growth that this stalwart can deliver may be limited, especially considering concerns about any slowdown in domestic sales.
If eBay's not a Rule Breaker at the moment, the question remains: What are the next great Rule Breaking businesses that will deliver stellar gains for investors over the long term? Companies that investors haven't caught onto yet, where they can still get in on the ground floor? That's what the Rule Breakers service strives to determine, pulling together the research and opinions of expert analysts and thoughtful community members to seek out the next disruptive, star-managed, rule-shattering possibilities that lie ahead. Try a 30-day free trial and make a bid on the future.
For related Rule Breaker Foolishness, check out:
- Searching for Rule Breakers by David Gardner
- Is Apple a Rule Breaker? by Rick Munarriz
- Is DreamWorks a Rule Breaker? by John Reeves
- Is Dendreon a Rule Breaker? by Karl Thiel
- Is Geron a Rule Breaker? by Charly Travers
- Is Netflix a Rule Breaker? by Beirne White
- Is IBM a Rule Breaker? by Carl Wherrett and John Yelovich
- Is Google a Rule Breaker? by Tim Beyers