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Innovation and disruption: How I turned $50,000 into $250,000 in five years

Chris Umiastowski is the growth investor for Strategy Lab. Globe Unlimited subscribers can read more in the series at tgam.ca/strategy-lab.

I'm writing this Strategy Lab conclusion piece from my sunny backyard. It's late September and the Toronto area has been beautifully surprised by weather that makes it feel like mid-July.

This surprise heat wave struck me as a great metaphor for my style of growth investing. After five years of running my model portfolio, I've turned the initial $50,000 into more than $250,000.

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If we had to start over again, I probably couldn't duplicate that level of success. But my strategy would remain the same. And that strategy is to invest in companies that are clear leaders in important or emerging fields and run by excellent managers who inspire innovation or disruption.

Innovation and disruption are not the same thing. Apple Inc. is a great example of both. It disrupted the cellphone market with the iPhone, and it continues to innovate around this area that it now dominates. If disruption creates the opportunity to become a market leader then innovation allows a company to maintain leadership.

When I invest in a company, I'm doing so because I think it will deliver a lot of positive surprises, just as Mother Nature is doing right now. If I'm on the right track, I'll continue waking up to interesting news about products, services or other similar business moves.

When Strategy Lab started, I didn't imagine Apple would launch and massively succeed with iCloud services such as Apple Music.

When I added shares of Tesla Inc. to the portfolio, I had no idea the company would rapidly build a global fast-charging network for electric cars, build the world's biggest battery factory and launch into the commercial and residential energy-storage business. I also didn't know they'd quickly move into a leadership position for self-driving cars.

I added Facebook Inc. because I liked what it was doing with its advertising platform, and I had first-hand experience publishing ads. I was not expecting it to keep improving its advertiser toolbox to the degree that it's now, in my opinion, a better ad platform than Google Inc.'s. I wasn't expecting Facebook Messenger or Facebook Groups to grow as they have to increase consumer and business stickiness within the Facebook environment.

And my biggest winner? Netflix Inc. is up more than 2,000 per cent in the past five years. I was a believer in this business because of the incredible global expansion opportunity it faced. I was right about that, but I had absolutely no idea it would become a powerhouse of original content. Netflix is now, in my opinion, a total no-brainer for every household with a broadband Internet connection, even if subscribers plan to keep their existing paid TV connection.

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The thing about surprises is … you can't predict what they'll be. But I think you can predict which companies are likely to deliver innovative or disruptive surprises based on their history and executive leadership. And it's easiest to do this in markets that you happen to be passionate about. But you must get past the fear that most classical investors have about such stocks being too expensive.

At the risk of being called out for a tautology – you can't have a top-performing stock without it hitting new highs. Such stocks almost always seem expensive, even to most professional investors.

One other thing I'd like to mention is that five years is still a very short time span by my investing standards. I buy stocks with the intention of holding them much longer than Strategy Lab demonstrates. My returns are impressive in part because I got lucky with the timing. Many tech stocks (and especially Netflix) were very weak when we started this project. But it was still up to me to recognize that these companies had amazing potential.

This is why I pretty much don't bother with market timing or trading. Just be on the lookout for quality leadership that can innovate or disrupt in important, growing markets. Then, invest and hold until you're not being positively surprised any more.

Even though Strategy Lab is over, I look forward to contributing ideas on growth investing in future columns. Until then, it's back to this glorious end of summer for me.

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