One of the keys to becoming a successful investor is to think like a business owner, rather than simply the owner of shares. When you begin to think like an owner, you no longer focus on the short-term fluctuations of share prices, but instead on the factors that will make the business grow and prosper. And believe me, if you pick successful businesses and buy them at cheap prices, you'll make a fortune over the long term.

Thinking like an owner
So, if you were a business owner, what sort of business would you like to own? Well, you'd obviously want to own a business that throws off a lot of cash, since the whole point of a business is to make money. What's more, you'd want the cash it generates to grow over time.

In addition, you'd want the business to have characteristics that enable it to keep making money for a long time. You would want minimal competition, because competitors will try to steal your customers, and potentially drive down your margins by competing on price. Ideally, the company would be a natural monopoly, where customers have no choice but to buy from you. This would allow you to increase prices -- and increase your profits -- without losing business.

If you own a company that generates lots of cash, has consistent growth, and is a natural monopoly, you have a profit machine.

An excellent business model
The problem is that very few businesses have all these characteristics, but often exchanges -- places where people congregate to trade with each other -- do.

Exchanges benefit from the networking effect. The more people who trade on an exchange, the greater the liquidity. People will naturally trade on the exchange with the greatest liquidity, because it offers the best chance for sellers to find buyers, and buyers to find sellers, helping to ensure that the trade is made at good prices. Thus, exchanges tend to be natural monopolies.

Stock exchanges such as NYSE Euronext (NYSE:NYX) are built on this business model, but they aren't the only type of exchange. There are also commodities, futures and derivatives exchanges such as CBOT Holdings (NYSE:BOT), Chicago Mercantile Exchange (NYSE:CME), and the InterContinental Exchange (NYSE:ICE).

But there's no reason to limit yourself to securities exchanges. eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), as the leading online auction site, also exploits the exchange business model. I'd even argue that online gaming companies such as CryptoLogic (NASDAQ:CRYP) and GigaMedia (NASDAQ:GIGM) are effectively exchange businesses. Players prefer the sites with the most players -- the most liquidity -- since they offer the biggest tournaments and the best chance of finding players to compete against in a wide variety of games, both day and night.

The challenge
Of course, it's not enough to find a great company. To achieve superior returns, you also need to buy these companies at excellent prices. That can be a real challenge for exchange businesses because they tend to trade at high multiples. CBOT, for instance, is trading at a P/E of 60, a price that affords little margin of safety.

So, you should always be on the lookout for companies with the exchange business model that you can buy cheaply. If you're looking for help, our May issue of Inside Value spotlights one company that exploits this model, yet is trading at a price significantly less than its fair value. You can read all about it, and all our other value picks, with a free trial.

Fool contributor Richard Gibbons tries to think like an owner, though he still rents. He owns shares of CryptoLogic, but does not have a position any of the other stocks discussed in this article. CryptoLogic is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. NYSE Euronext is a Rule Breakers recommendation. eBay is a Stock Advisor pick. GigaMedia is a Global Gains selection. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.