3 Little-Known Growth Stocks That Are Shaping the Future

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We all want to get in on the ground floor of a multi-decade opportunity — that’s why many investors focus on disruptors, aka the companies trying to change the future of an existing industry.

This can be an insanely successful investing strategy. Many of the best growth stocks over the past decade have been disruptors:

  • Tesla (up 743% in 2020 alone) didn’t invent the automobile (or even the electric vehicle), but it upended the entire auto market by making an EV that Americans actually wanted to buy. 
  • Apple (up 81% in 2020) certainly didn’t create the telephone or even the smartphone, but it built a device that’s easy to use and created a supporting ecosystem that users can’t get enough of.  
  • Amazon (up 76% in 2020) disrupted the retail industry by shifting sales to the Internet, and now it’s one of the biggest retailers in the world.

However, there are quite a few smaller growth stocks that might have even brighter future potential than these huge companies.

Here are three little-known businesses that are bringing their own disruptive technologies to the market.

MercadoLibre is disrupting two industries at the same time

  • MercadoLibre (NASDAQ:MELI)
  • Price: $1851.6 (as of close Aug 13, 2021)
  • Market Cap: 92,046,091,140

Investing in MercadoLibre (Nasdaq: MELI) today could be like buying both PayPal (Nasdaq: PYPL) and Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) 10 years ago. It’s a double-disruptor in both retail and payment processing.

Never heard of it? MercadoLibre isn’t well-known because it’s not a U.S.-based company. But that obscurity is your opportunity: MercadoLibre is Latin America’s largest e-commerce provider with operations across 18 countries. 

Most investors make the mistake of thinking that e-commerce isn’t really disrupting retail anymore. Not true!

E-commerce accounts for only 14% of total retail sales in the U.S., so imagine the runway for growth in the developing economies of Latin America! 

The company’s sales (and shares) are rising, with the volume of goods sold on its e-commerce platform growing 46% in the second quarter compared with a year earlier. The highlight was a significant gain of 218% in mobile sales volume, which is an important data point because mobile-based e-commerce is just starting to take off and because mobile is the primary way many Latin Americans access the Internet. 

It gets better with MercadoLibre – remember, I promised two disruptive industries. In fact, it’s this second industry that the company is disrupting that gets growth investors excited. MercadoLibre is taking on the banking industry with its fintech MercadoPago payment solution. 

The original idea behind MercadoPago was to provide a way for users who don’t have a bank account to buy things on MercadoLibre’s e-commerce site (“on-platform transactions”). But the service became so successful that it’s migrated to off-platform usage for transactions like buying gas or getting food at the local grocer or corner store. 

MercadoPago’s total payment volume rose 72% in the second quarter, and  off-platform usage nearly doubled over the prior year. 

Look for the disruption to continue. MercadoLibre is working on other banking services like MercadoFondo asset management and MercadoCredito lending service. This company has a long runway for growth in both e-commerce and in providing banking services to Latin America’s substantive unbanked population. 

Upstart could permanently change the lending industry 

  • Upstart Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ:UPST)
  • Price: $203.29 (as of close Aug 13, 2021)
  • Market Cap: 15,809,340,438

Shares of lending tech startup Upstart (Nasdaq: UPST) are on fire, exploding 350% so far this year. Despite the strong gains, there’s reason to believe the long-term story is just getting started. Here’s why.

As you doubtless know, most lending decisions are based on the FICO credit scoring system. If you want to borrow money, your entire financial future is determined by that one number. Your FICO score determines whether you can buy a home, qualify for the best credit card rates, and even get cheaper insurance. 

But there’s a problem: FICO scores are a flawed predictor of risk. Four in five Americans have never defaulted on a loan, but less than half have top-notch credit. If a lender had better data about its potential borrowers, it could make more loans, provide lower rates, and make more profit. 

This is Upstart’s massive opportunity. The company’s AI-based underwriting system is well situated to disrupt the lending industry as it enables lenders to evaluate risks with something more insightful than a simple three-digit number. 

According to a study with major banks, Upstart’s model could approve up to 3 times the number of borrowers while keeping loss rates the same as traditional underwriting. Even better for Upstart’s bank partners is the fact that its technology-enabled system is less labor-intensive, enabling banks to quickly approve and scale lending programs.

In the recent second quarter, revenue grew to $194 million, more than 1,000% higher than the prior year. More importantly, lenders are requesting underwriting through Upstart’s AI-based system more frequently and are choosing its terms over their in-house models. 

Founded by former Googlers, Upstart is on the forefront of disrupting the entire lending industry — which is a trillion-dollar industry (per month!). While it’s unlikely to continue these tremendous growth rates, the long-term story for Upstart’s stock is undeniably compelling.  

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The Trade Desk has television marketing in its crosshairs

  • The Trade Desk (NASDAQ:TTD)
  • Price: $80.91 (as of close Aug 13, 2021)
  • Market Cap: 38,729,657,521

The “death of TV” is upon us. The number of pay TV (cable) subscribers has declined from nearly 100 million in 2016 to less than 75 million today, according to eMarketer. In fact, the data analysis company expects more households will not have a cable subscription than will by 2024.

Yet, large networks like The Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS) are unfazed. Disney’s stock has risen 37% in the past year despite cord-cutting, closing its theme parks because of covid, and losing box office revenue with theaters being shut down. The reason is the strength of Disney’s digital streaming services, including Disney+ and Hulu. 

More and more viewers are going online to watch their favorite content from Disney and other programmers, and advertisers obviously want to be where the viewers are. This means the old-school television advertising ecosystem is ripe for disruption. 

Connected TV (CTV) advertising is aiming to replace that entrenched industry, and digital advertising company The Trade Desk (Nasdaq: TTD) now has a great opportunity to step up. 

Revenue grew 101% in The Trade Desk’s recent second quarter, with improvements across all marketing channels. The number of advertisers spending more than $100,000 per year doubled from the prior year, and the company had customer retention of more than 95% during the quarter, a figure it has exceeded for more than seven years. 

CTV is increasingly a large part of The Trade Desk’s growth story. The company recently said that it reached more than 87 million households via CTV marketing, more than are reachable from traditional television!

How to Find Growth Stocks

Last week, we talked about investing in value stocks and some of the approaches used by value investors like Warren Buffett. Don’t forget those lessons about determining how much a company is worth — we’re actually going to expand on them here — but know that growth investing requires a different kind of mindset, starting with saying goodbye to the ol’ price-to-earnings ratio. 

Many growth stocks simply don’t have a price-to-earnings ratio because they … don’t have any earnings. That’s because these young companies are aggressively reinvesting everything they make back into their businesses to win more customers and improve their top line (revenue). As a result, the bottom line (earnings) is often a negative number as the company tries to evolve into its full potential. 

In fact, some growth companies like Amazon went more than a decade without any reliable earnings! But at the same time, it was using all its revenue to build out a top-notch logistical network and develop its cloud computing infrastructure.

For that reason, the metrics that value investors commonly use don’t make much sense for evaluating growth companies. But that doesn’t mean growth investors shouldn’t research companies with the same level of scrutiny. Instead, growth investing requires looking deeper into the company’s operations and having an excellent understanding of the industry in which it operates. 

Goodbye multiples, hello key performance indicators

One data point that many growth investors pay close attention to is the price-to-sales ratio, which divides the current market capitalization by the last 12 months of sales. Ideally, you’re investing in a company that’s increasing its revenue more than its market capitalization, meaning this ratio should be declining over time. 

You should also look at how sales have performed in the past year, most notably to gauge if they’re growing and if they’re growing faster than competitors’. 

Most importantly, investors should read the company’s quarterly and annual financial reports to identify the key performance indicators (KPI) that will drive the company’s growth. These are things like user/subscriber growth; engagement factors such as daily active users, conversion rates, and customer counts; or transactional data such as gross merchandise volume. Knowing how these numbers are changing over time will help you understand the health of the business.

The big picture for growth stocks today

The pandemic has been a great time to be an investor, with many types of investments growing in value. But the real outperforming asset class during this period has been growth stocks. (Growth stocks generally outperform when interest rates fall, which happened in 2020.)

The rally in growth stocks took a breather earlier this year as Wall Street became worried about prices hitting all-time highs. It’s understandable when you consider that Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), Alphabet (Nasdaq: GOOG), Facebook (Nasdaq: FB), and Amazon are collectively worth $9.2 trillion, which is more than the entire market’s value a little over a decade ago.

Still, the pandemic has shown us that disruption can happen all around us. Why not get in on the ground floor on some of the biggest threats to today’s status quo? Your future self — and your brokerage account — just might thank you.

Jamal Carnette, CFA owns shares of MercadoLibre and The Trade Desk. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends MercadoLibre, The Trade Desk, and Upstart Holdings, Inc. Millennial Money is part of The Motley Fool network. Millennial Money has a disclosure policy.