No one could have predicted back in 2002 that Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) would go on to bankrupt much larger DVD rental competitors before pivoting to internet-delivered TV, and then pioneering that entertainment industry revolution. Yet there were signs early in its public life that Netflix shareholders might do well by holding onto their investments over the long term.
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Below, Motley Fool investors highlight a few stocks that are showing a similar kind of promise today. Read on to see why they think Vail Resorts (NYSE: MTN), Shopify (NYSE: SHOP), and Axon Enterprise (NASDAQ: AAXN) could mature into disruptive forces in their industries.
Streaming down the mountain
Dan Caplinger (Vail Resorts): It might sound ridiculous to compare a video streaming company with a ski resort operator, but like Netflix was in the early 2000s, Vail Resorts is on the brink of making a game-changing move in its industry. Netflix established itself as the leader in DVD-mailing service, but it recognized the need to go beyond that niche to become embrace the technological potential of streaming. Vail is making the same type of transformation in its business.
Traditionally, ski resorts have each had their own individual identity, and many skiers remained loyal to one particular location. But more recently, Vail Resorts has sought to create a network effect by buying up properties throughout North American and even across the globe. The purchase of the Perisher ski resort in Australia gave Vail some valuable calendar diversification from the Southern Hemisphere's July and August winter months, and the more recent acquisition of Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia provided the company with a world-renowned Canadian property to go with its existing high-profile resorts in Colorado, Lake Tahoe, and Utah. Vail also turned its attention to the East Coast with the recent purchase of the Stowe resort in northern Vermont.
Vail Resorts is cashing in on its network by selling season passes that allow holders to visit any Vail property, offering a series of different experiences that highlight the diversity and unique advantages of each resort. That strategy is working well so far, and it's poised to make Vail look even better in the years to come.
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One stunning opportunity
Rich Duprey (Axon Enterprise): Netflix in 2002 was upending the movie business with its rent-by-mail DVD business model. It ended up having to transform itself to cope with the changing preference for streaming video, and it's once again doing so by becoming a content creator with a distribution model that threatens to upset the apple cart once more.
I sought to find a business that similarly changed an industry and then finds itself in need of transformation once more. Axon Enterprise fits the bill, as its conducted electrical weapons, the TASER stungun, changed how law enforcement responded to situations. It moved from deadly force to less than lethal weapons that protected the police and the public.
So successful has it been that TASERs have become synonymous with stun guns, and they are every bit a part of a big-city police officer's duty belt as his sidearm and baton. Yet that's also limited future growth potential, as there are only so many departments it can sell and resell to. That's why it has now changed its focus to police body cameras and evidence management.
The need to protect the public and police from allegations of excessive force has created a worldwide opportunity to introduce body cameras to record interactions with the public. And, just as Netflix wasn't the first company to enter video streaming, Axon isn't first to market in body cams, but it is making a big splash nonetheless.
The real opportunity for it, though, may be in evidence management. Body cams produce a lot of data that needs to be stored and retrieved. The potential is great because once Axon's Evidence.com system is installed, there are high cost and logistical hurdles to overcome afterward to switch away from the database. It's likely why Axon Enterprise has been willing to offer free body cams to police departments all across the country with a free year of its evidence management system. Once embedded, it won't be easy to extricate them from the system.
It's a competitive market, but Axon has been experiencing tremendous growth, and investors may just be able to benefit from its shocking trajectory over time.
Buy it online instead
Demitri Kalogeropoulos (Shopify): Young, founder-led, and staring at a potentially massive long-term market opportunity, Shopify shares a few attractive qualities with Netflix in its earlier days. The e-commerce platform provider is enjoying head-turning growth right now, with sales spiking 72% in the most recent quarter as the volume of merchandise it processed passed $6.4 billion. A growing portion of that revenue is coming from recurring monthly subscription fees, which was one of the characteristics that has made Netflix's business so resilient.
I would still classify Shopify's stock as a high-risk investment. Sure, the company just reached adjusted operating profitability and appears to be building a big early lead in its industry. It's not clear yet how much pricing power the business could command, though. Shopify currently spends well over half of its revenue base on operating expenses, particularly on sales and marketing. It hasn't yet delivered net profits or positive cash flow.
There are other risks for investors to watch, too. Shopify's aggressive moves aimed at attracting new merchants to the service have left the company open to charges that it isn't following regulations, for example. However, CEO Tobias Lutke and his team deserve credit for building a robust platform that's helping small and medium-sized businesses compete through the online sales channel. That's a market that should only grow as e-commerce expands from its current rate of just 9% of the broader retailing world.
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Dan Caplinger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Demitrios Kalogeropoulos owns shares of Netflix. Rich Duprey has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Axon Enterprise, Netflix, and Shopify. The Motley Fool recommends Vail Resorts. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.