In 1992, I was 26 and already spending my fair share of time online. For several years, I'd been a satisfied customer of America Online. Although I liked the service, I decided not to buy shares of the company at the initial public offering that year. I thought I'd wait a while. Idiot.

I kicked myself for two years while the stock quadrupled. In the spring of '94, I followed my instincts and became an AOL shareholder -- in spite of an article in a major financial publication that declared AOL grossly overvalued and predicted that the stock would decline by 35%.

The following year, the stock dropped 25% or more three times. And then in 1996, shares absorbed a drop of 65%! Despite these setbacks, the company went on to wreak havoc on the business and journalistic establishments en route to putting up some of the best returns available during a decade of great investment returns. Even with all of the temporary downturns, and even though the stock is today down from its all-time high, my initial investment has still increased about 37 times overall -- $10,000 in stock at that time would now be worth $372,156, which amounts to an annualized return of 31%.

We'd all love to find the next AOL -- or whatever. That goes without saying.

But how can ordinary investors like you and me -- just a couple of regular Fools -- find the next great company? It's not impossible. If you can train your eyes to spot innovative companies breaking the rules in their industries, you increase your odds dramatically.

You can't score if you don't shoot
The Wise of Wall Street would chalk up AOL's 31% annualized gains to luck. "No one can really identify the great companies of the next generation," they'd say. Growth stocks are too risky; it's best to avoid that style of investing altogether and let a Street "expert" manage your investments.

I disagree. Investing in great companies early on in their high-growth stages and then holding them for the long term will provide the highest possible returns. Period.

We call those companies Rule Breakers. Our investment service of the same name seeks out the great growth stocks of tomorrow -- the potential AOLs -- before the Street catches on.

Think big, but keep an eye on the basics
Boiled down, I look for six signs of a potential Rule Breaker:

Sign No. 1: Top dog and first mover in an important, emerging industry.

Top dogs are active, fast-moving market leaders. In 1994, AOL was a top dog. Some years earlier, Microsoft was a top dog before making its impressive run. First movers seize a temporary edge over the competition and then exploit that advantage. These companies come from emerging industries -- like biotechnology today or e-commerce a few years back -- because it's unlikely that the railroad or meat-packing industries have much room left to run.

Rule Breakers are not hidden; they are right there before our eyes, bringing a disruptive technology, clever and effective marketing, or a brand-new business model to this little backwater planet of ours. They rattle our capitalistic foundations.

Sign No. 2: Sustainable advantage gained through business momentum, patent protection, visionary leadership, or inept competitors.

Can the company protect the advantage it obtained from its first-mover status? Microsoft, for example, absolutely consolidated its power.

Sign No. 3: Strong past price appreciation.

Sometimes, the best investments appear overvalued. I bought AOL after it quadrupled. Was Tiger Woods unknown before he joined the professional tour and started winning majors? Was No. 23 unheralded when he joined the Chicago Bulls after his junior year at North Carolina?

Sign No. 4: Good management and smart backing.

This is the most important attribute of all -- and it might be the most difficult to get right. Few would disagree that visionary leaders are behind the greatest companies of our generation: Microsoft has Bill Gates, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) has Howard Schultz, and Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFMI) has John Mackey -- who is still a visionary despite his "rahodeb" message board shenanigans. Investors should also be prepared to learn about the venture-backers of a young company. If the very best venture capital firms are behind a company, maybe you should be, too.

"Everything matters," Starbucks' way of creating a good consumer experience, also speaks to how we as investors should analyze companies. If everything matters -- and it does -- then you are well-served to study the management and venture-backers of any young company you're researching.

Sign No. 5: Strong consumer appeal.

Rule Breaking companies provide products or services that improve the quality of people's lives. Microsoft, for example, made home computer use a reality. Whole Foods delivers a better grocery-shopping experience.

Sign No. 6: You must find documented proof that it is overvalued according to the financial media.

This is the easiest one of all to identify. Every day, the Wall Street pooh-bahs declare that this or that stock is overvalued. Google shares begin trading publicly and the naysayers predict another tech "meltdown." (Checked that stock recently?) If a company is growing its earnings and, as a result, has an increasing valuation, there will be someone somewhere who will argue that the company is overvalued. Read anything about Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) in the past few months? You'd have noticed that analysts sweepingly believe the stock is overvalued. The reason this is valuable is that it keeps people out of a stock; later on, as the company proves out its position as a profitable, even dominant, leader, then the skeptics finally buy -- which is what can give you serious appreciation as an early investor in Rule Breaker stocks! Need proof? Companies like Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) continue to defy the odds, despite a robust valuation.

Before they were blue chips
So there you have it. Those are the characteristics I look for in tomorrow's landscape-changing companies.

Essential to our strategy is identifying great companies early on in their growth cycles. And then we hold for the long term. Indeed, many of the best examples of Rule Breakers are today's blue-chip companies. You may recognize a few:




Returns to Date**

Compound Annual
Growth Rate






Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO)





Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM)





Whole Foods





*Two years after the company came public. **All prices adjusted for splits and dividends.

Each of these companies had the six signs of a Rule Breaker at one point in its growth cycle -- and they each posted fantastic returns as a result. There are other not-as-famous companies out there -- hundreds of them -- that once were poised for the limelight but now are forgotten. In most cases, the flameouts and the fakers significantly lacked one or more of the signs we pointed to above.

There is no trade-off
With detailed information on more than 9,000 publicly traded companies, the stock market can't help being fairly efficient. But the market doesn't have all of the information, does it? Many people insist on following the rules laid down by Wall Street or by the latest "this is the way to invest" fad investment book, regardless of how banal or unsuccessful these prescribed rules behave in practice. There's our opportunity.

My team of analysts at our Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter service obsessively searches for these opportunities. If you'd like to read our analysis of all our potential Rule Breakers in greater depth, join us for a free 30-day trial today. You can cancel your trial at any time -- you have my word. Click here to learn more.

And one last thing. As big-time Rule Breaker Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates: "Stay hungry. Stay Foolish."

This article was originally published on June 23, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool co-founder David Gardner owns shares of Starbucks, Microsoft, Whole Foods, and AOL parent company Time Warner. Starbucks, Time Warner, and Whole Foods are Stock Advisor recommendations. Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. Chipotle is a Rule Breakers and Hidden Gems pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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.