Let's play a game. I'll say a word and you tell me the first thing that pops into your head.
Rule Breaker. For me, it's a blur -- a whirlwind winter into spring during which I made a small fortune... then lost it all. Y2k.
It was June 1999...
I received a call from a science guy who would later cross to Wall Street's dark side. That particular morning, he was salivating over a genome maverick based in my hometown. I bought the stock, which after a listless summer, heated up in the fall -- then boom!
Before I knew it, this one flyer was my entire portfolio. And it was doubling weekly. News flow was positive, but this was something else. Turns out, a fellow named David Gardner at The Motley Fool had tapped the stock for a spot in his Rule Breaker real-money portfolio. At last -- I'd stumbled in front of a freight train.
It may not be what you think
Rule Breaker investing is back, but it may not be what you think. I know this because, as fate would have it, David Gardner's path crossed mine. And when it did, he told me explicitly what a Rule Breaker is. Today, I'll pass that on to you.
To my surprise, it's not about tech at all. True, David added AOL
But to hear it from David himself -- who, by the way, still owns all three -- it's low-tech Starbucks that is the consummate Rule Breaker. Why? Because Starbucks sensed a need and, when it did, it not only met that need, it changed our world in the process.
Low-tech, yes, but tell me this: Is a world without Starbucks any less unthinkable than one without Sirius Satellite
But here's what really makes Starbucks a Rule Breaker: There's no second fiddle. I mean, where's the Pepsi to Starbucks' Coke? There isn't one. Starbucks is a Rule Breaker. If you bought the stock in the late 1990s, you're one, too. To this day, second best isn't even on the horizon.
Lesson 1: It's not all about tech. Exhibit A: Starbucks.
Martha, Martha, Martha
Still not low-tech enough? Back in 2002, David Gardner and his brother, Tom, launched Motley Fool Stock Advisor. But my impressions of The Motley Fool were still tangled with the human genome, Amazon, and the legend of David moving early into AOL and eBay
One word would change all that.
Martha. As in Martha Stewart. Mark Hulbert is the watchdog of the investment newsletter industry. If memory serves me, Hulbert mentioned that David was the only advisor recommending Martha Stewart's embattled namesake to his readers. Martha was a pariah.
That was November 2002. The stock was trading at $6.03. It's around $26 today. David closed out Martha Stewart in July 2004 at $9.05, a decision -- which he calls his worst in years -- that locked in a 50% gain. I should be so lucky. Here, I learned two lessons in one.
Lesson 2: Buy when there's blood in the streets -- especially if you have faith in the business, the financials, and most of all, the brand. Lesson 3: Let your winners run. Exhibit B: Martha Stewart.
Who's breaking the rules today?
Of course, there's Google
Then there's Taser. That's right, I said it. Is the stock damaged goods? Maybe a little, but we're talking about a market cap of less than $700 million -- even after rising thousands of time in value. Profit margins are ridiculous, and the company generates a lot of cash. Folks are scared stiff -- even after a painful sell-off.
The fact is, beyond periods of real mania, most investors don't like to pay up for growth -- even unrivaled growth. Unless you get in at the very bottom -- like David did with AOL in 1994 -- it is almost always painful to buy these stocks. Which is precisely why, in the right situation, buying these mavericks -- these Rule Breakers -- can turbocharge your returns.
Fair warning: Admit that you're eyeing Taser and people call you crazy. Is buying Taser a little risky? Darn right it is. Taser is no place for the emergency cash or the college fund. On the other hand, where's the Pepsi to Taser's Coke? Great growth stocks are never cheap, and there's a funny thing about people: They're often wrong.
Lesson 4: Don't listen to people. Exhibit C: Taser.
Are you one of us?
Rule Breaker. It's a blast from the past, but I'm real happy to hear it again. I'm one myself -- just ask the local authorities. And for the record, I rode my genome wonder all the way up and too much of the way back down. That little lesson cost me.
Lesson 5: Be prepared to sell if the underlying story falls apart. Exhibit D: Celera Genomics.
So, what makes a Rule Breaker investor? I asked David Gardner that very question: "Simply, it's one who can embrace the contrary nature of paying up for great growth stocks." That's straight from the horse's mouth. Should you take David's word for it? I would.
Researching this column, I ran some numbers
Turns out, when David officially shuttered his real-money Rule Breaker portfolio, he'd managed a 20.1% annualized return. That was in mid-2002, after the bear market. That's more than double the S&P and nearly three times the Nasdaq for the same period (for a neat chart, you can click here and scroll down -- though I warn you, the presentation is "salesy").
Put another way, the $87,500 invested in the real-money portfolio between August 1994 and April 2002 was worth more than $300,000 when the portfolio officially closed in February 2003 -- after the bear market had run its course. Those are the kinds of results that made legends of Peter Lynch and Bill Miller, and rightfully so.
What to do now?
I don't claim that this is anything but an introduction. Aggressive growth investing is not for everyone -- certainly not for all of anyone's assets. But let's face it, the very best investments are the stocks of high-growth companies -- upstarts that come from nowhere and change our world. Companies like Amazon, AOL, and maybe even Google and Taser.
Curious, at least? Well, David is offering a special 30-day free trial to his Motley Fool Rule Breakers advisory service (no pressure to subscribe). Let's face it, buying these rockets early on can be scary -- it's also a blast. But isolation is deadly. If you'd rather not go it alone, click here to learn more.
This article was originally published on Dec. 16, 2004. It has been updated.
Fool writer Paul Elliott owns Celera. eBay and Amazon.com are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.