The best stocks of the past 10 years all started small. That's documented fact, and it's something any investor putting together a portfolio should know.

But -- as many readers have pointed out -- that fact is also backward-looking. They want to know what the best stocks of the next 10 years will look like.

I'm no soothsayer, but I'll give it the old college try ...
Far be it from me to shun the lessons of history, so I'll go out on a limb and predict that the best stocks of the next 10 years will start small -- as in a market cap of a few hundred million or less. Of course, if we take the world's major exchanges as our oyster, that means we're looking at more than 11,000 prospects.

In other words, it's not a big help, I know.

Of course, any tiny company that aspires to greatness will need some significant tailwinds. A recent business trip gave me several insights into a true hurricane-force gale.

We're live from the center of the storm, Bob
Small companies with big opportunities can be difficult to come by in the United States. Our economy is mature, and many industries are dominated by a handful of large-cap players.

For instance, in pharmacies, there's already CVS Caremark (NYSE: CVS) and Walgreen (NYSE: WAG). Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT) is the go-to name for construction equipment. And despite some high-profile success stories in the drink space, the distribution systems of Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) make it difficult for small operators to compete -- particularly at a time when freight costs are on the rise.

Any company that wants to make inroads in these industries has some high hurdles to clear.

Where large-cap industries are dominated by small-cap companies
That, however, is not as much the case in a little country called China. Maybe you've heard of it.

For a long time, the Chinese economy was the enterprise of the state. And although the state has been liberalizing its economy lately, many sectors are still closed to foreign companies. This has a created an enormous opportunity for small Chinese companies to take hold in newly private niches. And while the China story has been going on for years now, it's still young. Roth Capital's Gordon McBean told us during our visit to the firm's office in Shanghai, "It's not the seventh inning. It still feels early."

But investing in Chinese small caps isn't necessarily a risk-free proposition.

Will you pay to play?
Chinese stocks tend to be expensive. Of the 111 Chinese companies listed on our major U.S. exchanges, just 32 have a price-to-earnings ratio (P/E) less than the S&P 500's. And some of the better-known names, including Mindray Medical (NYSE: MR) and (Nasdaq: SOHU), have P/Es near 50.

Maybe those multiples are deserved. As Roth Capital noted in its recent report on the Chinese economy, China has the world's best economic growth record -- posting 9.7% annual growth over the past 26 years. More important, that growth is expected to continue as urban migration and the development of western China roll onward.

Not much of a riddle
What do you get when you combine the world's fastest-growing economy, entrepreneurial small companies, and a political environment that in effect incubates these companies? You get a recipe for remarkable returns.

But don't go throwing money in blindly. That's how you'll get wiped out when growth slows and competition increases.

Instead, focus on finding the best-run small Chinese companies that are also operating within the widest niche market opportunities. Roth Capital's McBean has some tips:

  • Steer clear of companies with government-run ownership structures. They won't be entrepreneurial enough.
  • Don't invest in companies that compete against government-run companies. It won't be a level playing field.
  • Keep tabs on the five-year plans the government releases. The Chinese government is efficient when it comes to achieving these goals. Seek out the companies that will help the government make its plans happen.
  • Look for companies that will benefit from increasing consumer affluence. The Chinese are getting richer, and they're looking to spend on luxuries such as travel, designer clothes, and nice homes.

Get your Chinese small caps
While these tips are specific to investing in China, don't forget your investing fundamentals. That means doing a thorough background check on a company's management, and careful valuation work to make sure you don't overpay.

Motley Fool Global Gains advisor Bill Mann and I went on a research trip to China last summer, where we met with several companies that fit this model. You can get all of our updates from that trip, as well as a look at the international stocks the service is recommending today, by joining Global Gains free for 30 days. After all, you don't want to miss out on one of the best stocks of the next 10 years.

This article was first published on June 18, 2007. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Mindray Medical is a Rule Breakers pick. The Fool's disclosure policy knows no bounds.