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In February 2000, at the peak of the bubble in dot-com stocks, I wrote an article that posed the question: "Will the Web produce the next Warren Buffett?"

The story profiled amateur investors who had made small fortunes in tech stocks during that crazy ride to the top of the market. Some had quit their day jobs. A little more than a month later, the bubble popped and tech stocks crashed. The party was over for these bull market heroes. Or was it?

When I wrote that story, there were 5 million online investors. Currently there are an estimated 50 million. Those fleeting dot-com stock millionaires were merely an early wave in the gathering army of self-directed investors.

Today the playing field has been leveled for ordinary investors. Instant access to information is a few clicks away, and so are quality tools and analytics once available only to professionals.

Our digital immersion -- from laptops and BlackBerrys to iPads and Droids -- has spawned rapid-fire innovation in retail financial services. Trades cost $7 at Scottrade and $8 at Fidelity.com.

Want hedge-fund-style analytics? The free site RiskGrades will run a diagnostic on all the assets in your portfolio using sophisticated econometric modeling to tell you if each holding is worth the risk.

Looking to learn from the topflight managers and analysts? Try ValueInvestorsClub.com, AlphaClone or SumZero.

Don't doubt the power of Web tools.

People from every background

In 2001 Michael Koza, a civil engineer working in the waste management department in Sacramento County, Calif., decided to fire his stockbroker because his $100,000 nest egg was languishing in high-fee mutual funds. "I had a full-service broker because I thought that was the way you were supposed to do it," says Koza, now 51.

But Koza's wife, Maria, had told him he was crazy and urged him to become a do-it-yourself investor. He immersed himself in Web research, spending hours each morning before work, during lunch breaks and in the evening looking into stocks and devouring company documents online. On weekends, he listened in his car to downloaded recordings of management conference calls. Now, the Kozas' stock portfolio has grown to more than $3 million, and Michael and Maria have purchased a new home and several investment properties.

Koza is one of a new breed of investors I write about in my book "The Warren Buffetts Next Door: The World's Greatest Investors You've Never Heard Of." Since February 2001, his average annual portfolio return has been 30%, compared with 0.8% for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX), according to Marketocracy.com. His five-year performance trumps every single stock fund in Lipper's database.

Koza's approach is a mix of contrarian value and distressed investing -- not unlike that of billionaires David Tepper and Andrew Beal.

Christopher Rees is another self-taught value investor, but he runs a concentrated portfolio of just 10 stocks. His average annual return for the last decade is 23%. British-born Rees never attended college and spent most of his adult life as a hippie vagabond, traveling the globe earning just enough to get by. Today he invests full time from the Dominican Republic.

Several years ago, Jack Weyland of Reno, Nev., found he had a knack for picking biotech stocks. He has logged an average annual return of 37% since July 2002. Weyland, now 33, is a former trucker who used his laptop and a wireless card to research stocks while on the road.

Alan T. Hill thrives on a mix of yield investments and low-priced speculative stocks that he gleans from message boards. Six years ago, a single smart stock pick -- BanColombia (CIB, news) -- created enough of a windfall for him to build an adobe-style dream home in the hills of Placitas, N.M. But Hill, 71, is no one-stock wonder. Since he retired in 2005, he is making more money investing than he ever did during his career.

In the age of YouTube and Facebook, attending an elite business school or working at an exclusive hedge fund are no longer the only tickets for acquiring the wisdom of greats like Buffett and Julian Robertson. If you know where to look, the Web is chock-full of legendary investor incubators.

The only real requirement for becoming a good investor is committing the time. Invest in yourself -- tap your inner Buffett. More than ever, it's possible to achieve superior investment returns and meet your financial goals.