I have a confession to make. I am not a wealthy man. Now, this information might be worrisome to some of you in light of the fact that I work for a company that provides advice on how to maximize personal wealth. I do, however, have a good explanation for my relatively modest financial situation.

I spent most of my 20s without an income, languishing away in grad school. During my 30s, I earned a pittance teaching history to college students. Only recently did I leave academia for the private sector, motivated by such grandiose dreams as being able to afford my own home and send my kids to college. All things considered, I have only one major regret over the past 20 years or so: I didn't invest early enough in the great companies of our generation. Where was the Motley Fool Rule Breakers service when I was 21?

What's past is prologue
During the past 20 years, the American economy has experienced phenomenal growth, fueled by a technological revolution that has transformed the way we work, shop, and communicate.

From 1984 to 2003, GDP grew by 77% and manufacturing productivity expanded by more than 100%. To see how far we've come, just have a look at an old Star Trek episode. What was supposed to look futuristic back in the 1960s and 1970s now looks utterly ridiculous. My underpowered laptop in 2005 appears far more useful than anything Captain Kirk had at his disposal to navigate the USS Enterprise.

During the 1980s, developments in the computer industry provided a much-needed stimulus to a U.S. economy still smarting from the stagflation years of the previous decade. Innovative companies such as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) led the way in this sector. In the 1990s, visionary enterprises such as AOL (now part of Time Warner (NYSE:TWX)) and Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) ushered in the Internet era. Entrepreneurship was not, however, limited to computer firms and Internet companies. Dynamic service providers such as Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) and Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) responded to new cultural and economic trends and began selling their products in clever and profitable ways.

All seven of the companies mentioned above broke the rules when they first appeared on the scene. Indeed, David Gardner, lead analyst for Rule Breakers, started touting each of these companies early in their existence. Now, of course, long after the fact, conventional wisdom recognizes the genius of these companies. And five of the seven are now considered among the 80 most respected companies worldwide, according to a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

So imagine what would have happened if, after having graduated from college in 1984, I plunked down $1,000 on each of these outstanding firms early on in their high-growth stage?

Company Initial
Investment
Starting
Date
Value
in 2005
Total
Return
Southwest Airlines* $1,000 1984 $15,174 1,417%
Apple* $1,000 1984 $14,238 1,324%

Microsoft*

$1,000 1986 $308,888 30,788%
Dell* $1,000 1988 $398,700 39,870%
AOL* $1,000 1992 $150,250 14,925%
Starbucks $1,000 1992 $37,873 3,687%
Yahoo! $1,000 1996

$28,058

2,706%
* Denotes a selection as one of PricewaterhouseCoopers' 80 most respected companies.

As you can see, a paltry $1,000 investment in Dell back in 1988 would have yielded $398,700 today. With that kind of performance, I suspect I'd now be in a position to purchase my own home, which would be a big improvement on the substandard dwelling I'm currently renting. On a less spectacular scale, $1,000 invested a mere nine years ago in Yahoo! would have grown to $28,058 by August 2005. That figure approaches a year of tuition (excluding fees) at Harvard. And I would still have 11 more years to invest for the other three years of college, as my oldest is only in second grade.

Wait just a minute ...
Now some of you might object. Surely, it is not very likely that an investor would have been able to get in on the ground floor of all of these great companies. Perhaps you are right. Let's see what would happen if we delayed our investments in three of the above companies by two years, which might have given us more time to monitor these high-growth businesses.

Company Initial
Investment
Starting
Date
Value
in 2005
Total
Return
Microsoft $1,000 1988 $73,158 7,215%
Dell $1,000 1990 $398,700 39,870%
Starbucks $1,000 1994 $7,530 653%


My hypothetical return in Dell would have remained exactly the same, while my returns in Microsoft and Starbucks would have declined considerably by waiting -- not that I'd complain about a 7,215% return on my investment. So we see that the great companies are still available at reasonable valuations early in their growth stages. You don't have to sniff out Starbucks at its first coffee bean to turn a very nice profit.

Money for nothing ...
You might be thinking: I like those 39,900% returns; how do I get some of those? OK, now for some reality. The purpose of looking at the returns of the great companies listed above is not to show that growth investing is an all-win situation. Far from it. The purpose of the illustration is to demonstrate how well great companies perform over a long period. If you can identify just one great company early, and then hold on for the long term, you can do pretty well for yourself.

Growth investing is highly volatile and will fray the nerves of those individuals with a low risk tolerance. That said, everyone should devote a portion of his or her portfolio to growth stocks. For those traveling in the fast lane (has David Gardner really been ticketed for speeding 26 times?), an allocation of 30% of their portfolio might make sense. More conservative types should allocate at least 5% in order to provide a little juice for their investments. I'm somewhere in between, so I devote about 15% of my portfolio to growth. I'm looking to buy some of our Rule Breakers stock selections myself, and I recently pulled the trigger on one of Charly Travers' picks, a biotech firm that is up more than 50% since I purchased it.

Willie Sutton and investing
Should I concentrate all of my growth allocation on computer and Internet stocks? No doubt, there are still great opportunities in these areas. In fact, there's a Rule Breakers selection I like that utilizes the Internet in an entirely creative way to deliver one of the most timeless products out there. But we also need to find new areas to trawl for great companies.

You might recall the familiar story about Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, old Willie replied, "Because that's where the money is." With Willie's advice in mind, the Rule Breakers service focuses on those sectors where the next great companies are likely to emerge.

We now have expert analysts for the realms of biotechnology and nanotechnology. Meanwhile, David Gardner -- who as co-founder of The Motley Fool knows a thing or two about managing an innovative company that defies conventional wisdom -- leads the mission to size up which managers have what it takes to be called Rule Breakers. By joining that mission, you will essentially be hiring six dedicated analysts, each of whom is searching for great companies before the masses have even heard of them. You wouldn't climb Mount Everest without experienced guides, nor should you pursue a growth strategy without excellent advice.

Epiphany
The high-growth train of the 1980s and 1990s has already left the station, and some of us were left behind, muttering obscenities to ourselves on the platform. We have two choices facing us today in 2005. One option is to lament our bad fortune, admit that high-growth stocks demand too much hard work and more than a bit of luck, and then resign ourselves to index funds, hoping to eke out 7% per year over the next 20 years. The other option demands boldness and vision. It asks you to forget the past and plan for the future by joining in the search for the great companies of the next 20 years.

The novelist George Eliot once said that "it is never too late to become what you might have been." That quote inspires me to seek those investments in the future that I didn't in the past. If you think our dedicated Rule Breakers team can help you in a similar quest, why not try a risk-free trial for 30 days?

This article was originally published on Feb. 2, 2005. It has been updated.

John Reeves does not own any companies mentioned in this article. Dell and Time Warner are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations.The Motley Foolhas a disclosure policy.