Let's face it. We'd all like to find the next Starbucks.

Unfortunately, for every superstar stock out there, there are dozens of clunkers guaranteed to become a drag on your portfolio. When it comes to finding great companies, how do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

Who'd pay that much for coffee?
Starbucks in the mid-1990s offers us some valuable insights. Though it would have been considered overvalued by most traditional metrics, it was also delivering outstanding growth rates. In 1995, its earnings per share (EPS) grew by more than 100%. In 1996, its EPS grew by another 48%.

But Starbucks wasn't just about gaudy growth rates. It also had an innovative business model that changed the way coffee was sold around the globe. The company summarized its outlook in just one sentence in its 1996 10-K: "The Company believes that its customers choose among retailers primarily on the basis of quality and convenience, and, to a lesser extent, on price."

I'd say Starbucks was right about that.

Savvy investors who recognized this amazing business early on would have been well-rewarded. A $20,000 investment in January 1996 would now be worth more than $180,000 -- an annualized rate of return of 20%.

20/20 hindsight
A number of things jump out at us as we look at the Starbucks story. In the early and mid-1990s, the company had begun transforming an entire sector by selling a well-known commodity at premium prices to a loyal and growing customer base. As a result, it experienced rapid growth in revenue and earnings. It all seems so simple in retrospect.

Using these insights, I ran a basic screen that unearthed seven stocks. I was looking for established companies with growth rates of more than 20% per year, and I included only companies that were rated highly among the investors participating in our Motley Fool CAPS stock-rating service. Here's what I found:


Five-Year Estimated
Growth Rate

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Wipro (NYSE:WIT)



Nuance Communications (NASDAQ:NUAN)






NYSE Euronext (NYSE:NYX)



Transocean (NYSE:RIG)






Intuitive Surgical



Data from Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool CAPS, and Capital IQ as of Dec. 10, 2007.

Not all of these companies have the potential to match the superior returns that Starbucks has generated over the past decade. For example, because Transocean is already a $40 billion company, it would have a much harder time achieving those types of returns. If the company grew at 22% per year over the next 11 years, as Starbucks has, it would be a nearly $300 billion company in 2018 -- making it much larger than BP is today. Possible? Yes, but very unlikely.

So it stands to reason that we need to look for companies smaller than Transocean if we expect Starbucks-like growth into the next decade. In 1996, Starbucks was only a $2 billion company and still had plenty of room left to grow.

The quest begins
Intuitive Surgical, the company behind the da Vinci robots used in minimally invasive surgical procedures, is a perfect example of a dynamic company that is still experiencing outstanding growth. Its five-year estimated growth rate is 37%, its CAPS rating is four stars (out of five), and it's an official recommendation in our Motley Fool Rule Breakers investing service, led by Fool co-founder David Gardner.

David and his team of analysts are always searching for the next Starbucks -- that is, great companies still at a young point in their growth cycles. Rule Breakers has already delivered 11 multibaggers for its subscribers in just a little more than three years. If you'd like to see all of our picks and research, including our top five ideas for right now, click here for a no-obligation 30-day trial.

This article was originally published on Feb. 3, 2007. It has been updated.

John Reeves does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned, though he spends way too much money at Starbucks each week. Starbucks is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. NYSE Euronext is a Rule Breakers pick. Nuance is a Hidden Gems selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.