Rule Breaker. I'll never forget the day I heard those two words. It was Christmas Day 1999 ...

I was on the phone with an old pal from Rockville, Md. That summer, he had tipped me off to a local scientist and businessman who claimed he could crack the human genome. There was an IPO. I bought in and forgot it.

What the heck is going on here?
By December, the stock was doubling every week. Apparently, some Fool named David Gardner announced he'd also bought it for his Rule Breakers portfolio. In December 1999, I hadn't the foggiest idea what that meant, but it was moving the market.

That was my first experience catching lightning in a bottle. And while I imagine this must all seem a bit quaint now, I assure you: Even in this economy, there are companies doing good work -- and the next 10-bagger is out there.

Which is why I'm not all that surprised to hear that Rule Breaker investing is making a comeback. But I should warn you: It may not be exactly what you think. It's certainly not what I thought it was when I first heard those two words back in 1999.

For one thing, it's not all about tech
Yes, there was some technology in Gardner's original Rule Breakers portfolio. But as it turns out, it's not so much disruptive technologies Gardner is after as disruptive businesses. Gardner points out, for example, that Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) didn't invent the computer. Rather, it changed the way computers are sold, which made it a Rule Breaker.

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, took the mundane science of inventory management to new heights and literally changed the way America shops. And according to Gardner, it's low-tech Starbucks -- not highflying Micron Technology (NYSE:MU) -- that is the consummate Rule Breaker. Who better than Starbucks, he asks, sensed a need, met it, branded it, and then spread it from coast to coast?

But do you know what really made Starbucks a Rule Breaker in 1998? It was way out in front of the curve. There was no second fiddle. If you bought Starbucks along with David in 1998, you're a Rule Breaker, too.

So, just what makes a Rule Breaker investor?
To find out once and for all, I caught up with David Gardner and asked him. His reply? "A Rule Breaker is an investor who can embrace the contrary nature of paying up for great growth stocks." That's an important point.

As David points out, even in down markets, great growth companies rarely look "cheap" by traditional valuation methods. In my line of work, I think back to when companies like Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW) and later Ameritrade -- now TD AMERITRADE (NASDAQ:AMTD) -- set their sights on Wall Street's broken commission model.

They seemed risky at the time -- and expensive. Now, they look to have run their course. But if you can catch them in their sweet spot, Gardner insists, Rule Breakers like these are worth the gamble. They make investors a lot of money.

Should you take his word for it? I would.

Turns out, when David shuttered his real-money Rule Breakers portfolio, he'd managed a 20.1% annualized return. That was in mid-2003, after the bear market. Compare that with 9.1% for the S&P 500 and 7.3% for the Nasdaq over the same period. That's the kind of outperformance that made legends of Peter Lynch and Bill Miller, and rightfully so.

But are you a Rule Breaker?
That's a valid question. Buying growth can get scary. David learned that when the genome stocks blew up in 2000, and more recently when his team recommended Suntech Power (NYSE:STP) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) -- true Rule Breakers, but the stocks are weighing on the Rule Breakers portfolio.

Then again, David also led us to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ:GMCR), a "Starbucks killer" that's already doubled in six months. Of course, the money is just part of it. Rule Breaker investing is interesting, and these are the stocks you'll brag about after a few too many at the pub. There's certainly no shame in that.

The trick, of course, is spotting them early and having the guts to buy when you do. It certainly helps to get your information from someone you can trust -- someone with a proven track record, who does the legwork. In other words, not from some wahoo like my old pal on the phone.

So, why not go straight to the source?
Listen, I know times are tough. That's why I want you to accept a 30-day free trial to David Gardner's Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter. That way, you can test-drive the complete service, and you won't have to spend a dime to see what David and his team of analysts are digging up now.

You can even read all back issues and cherry-pick every active and past pick for free during your trial (a half-dozen have tripled in value or more). Of course, there's never any pressure to subscribe. If you don't like what you see, you don't pay a cent.

I can't say you'll get rich quick if you accept. But I can promise that you'll get some great ideas, and that you have nothing to lose. If you think you're up to it and want to learn more about taking a free trial, click here.

This article was originally published on Dec. 16, 2004. It has been updated.

Fool writer Paul Elliott doesn't own any of the stocks named here. Starbucks and Schwab are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and Dell are Inside Value recommendations. Green Mountain Coffee, Google, and Suntech Power are Rule Breakers picks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Starbucks and has a disclosure policy.