Best Small Cap: Blackboard

In the spirit of the Winter Olympics, which started Friday in Torino, Italy, The Motley Fool is pitting companies against one another. The writers will outline why their company is the best, and our very own panel of judges will decide the winner after a period of deliberation. Stay tuned for more!

I'm not sure what's up with this whole "Best Small Cap" Olympic theme stuff. Like so many Americans these days, I'm distracted by stuff other than the games in Torino. Important things, like American Idle (did I spell that correctly?), online gaming, mysterious pocket lint, keeping tabs on Mr. Whittington's medical condition, and admiring Vice President Cheney's balletic grace with the press...

But I do know I like Blackboard (Nasdaq: BBBB  ) , and that's what I'm going to talk about here today.

To me, Blackboard, which provides integrated education software and services -- from online class resource-sharing to lunch-line commerce solutions -- is one of those quintessential small-cap opportunities, the kind of stock you should tuck away for a long time. There's nothing to worry about.

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What's that? Need more? OK, let's get the main meat of Blackboard's opportunity.

First of all, Blackboard provides a unique service that's desperately needed by campuses and schools everywhere. My teacher wife is a major fan of the software, so much so that she feels very put out when she has to work at schools that don't use the system. My professorial friends are similarly hooked. In fact, many of them can't imagine doing their jobs without it. Older, individualized legacy systems (if any) are just that crummy.

Yes, there's some competition in the form of eCollege (Nasdaq: ECLG  ) , and some suspect Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) or Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) might move into this field. There's also speculation about the effect of open-source or "free" alternatives, but if you think open-source = free, take a look at how much money Red Hat (Nasdaq: RHAT  ) is making. Given Blackboard's commanding lead in the market (now even bigger because of its WebCT acquisition) and the very real costs of switching, I like Blackboard's chances to remain the leader -- or at worst, become a takeover target.

But for all the stability its 92% renewal rate provides, I also like Blackboard's growth. For the year just finished, revenues were up 22%, and earnings, well, those were juiced by some tax benefits. Better indicators, from my desk, are the improved margins and growth in free cash flow. You can get all the nitty gritty in our handy Fool by Numbers. Guidance for next year calls for 16% revenue growth and 25% to 30% growth in operating cash flow. Sounds just fine to me.

The only problem I have with Blackboard is the price. Frankly, it's still more than I'd pay for the shares. I'm hoping that anyone who jumped into this stock because of Jim Cramer's college-tour pump will get off the bus and give me a chance to get some more around the $22 mark.

But I'm not counting on that, because this really is a champ small-cap. The trouble with some of these gems is that even "disappointing" guidance isn't enough to get people to drop their shares.

For more:

Blackboard is aMotley Fool Hidden Gemspick. If you get tired of waiting for this one to get into cheap territory, afree trialwill get you a look at the latest, value-conscious picks.

Seth Jayson thinks Blackboard is a killer app. At the time of publication, he had shares of Blackboard and Microsoft but no positions in any other firm mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Fool rules are here.


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