In the past, I've mentioned our eternal efforts to uncover small companies that will eventually appreciate many times in value. The legendary Peter Lynch called such companies "multibaggers," and they are the real difference-makers in a lifetime of investing -- the ones that easily make up for mediocre and failed investments.

Just ask anyone who invested in Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HDI) in 1990, weathered some volatility, and watched it eventually rise 60 times in value. Or how about those who saw the potential in a beaten-down USANA Health Sciences (NASDAQ:USNA) in 2002, even after the nutritional-products company stabilized and rose 400% in a matter of months? A $5,000 investment then would have turned into $58,000 today. In Motley Fool Hidden Gems, we actively search for unknown or unloved companies -- and even those that most investors consider broken.

Today, I thought it would be interesting to look at Audible, and why it turned into a multibagger for me over a 14-month period. It's especially interesting now because since this column first ran nearly six months ago, the stock has taken several big swings. It rose and became my first-ever eight-bagger, but it has since dipped and is now a four-bagger! That's still an outstanding gain, of course, and perhaps we can learn why, in this short period of time, the stock achieved what it takes an index fund years to reach at historical market growth. We love indexing and think it should be a core part of your portfolio, but Audible offers a great example of how small-cap investing can really juice your returns.

Hear me now
Audible is the No. 1 provider of spoken-word content on the Internet. Besides audio books, it also provides daily newspaper and magazine articles, interesting speeches, and various other nifty things. Users can download the content to listen via encoded MP3 files on their portable player, burn it onto a CD, or just listen on their computer. Think of how handy it would be to listen to The New York Times (NYSE:NYT) or The Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones (NYSE:DJ)) on the way to work every morning!

In typical Lynchian fashion, I was a loyal Audible customer before I thought about the company as an investment. I commute to Fool HQ 30 minutes each way, and in 2000 I found that Audible's audio books not only made that time on the Capital Beltway fly by but also educated, amused, and enriched me in ways I would never have imagined.

When I started, a $14.99 monthly fee allowed me to download two books each month. I was able to catch up on things I should have read long ago but never had the time. The Hobbit motivated me to read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jeffrey DeMunn's narration of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher was outstanding. Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was short but sweet. I just finished Tolstoy's epic War and Peace -- long but outstanding. I would never have discovered such gems as Ender's Game and Life of Pi if it weren't for Audible. All "told," some 100 books have passed through my now-ancient Rio 500 MP3 player and into my head.

Barely audible
When I first looked at the company as an investment possibility, the stock was below $1 per share, down from the $45 range after its 1999 IPO. The business had never been profitable and was in danger of running out of money and closing its doors. It was too risky for me then, but I kept an eye on it. Over the months, things began to stabilize somewhat. Sales growth, after decelerating from 1999 through 2002, began accelerating again. The stock price doubled from its lows. There were still many obstacles to overcome, but -- because of the strength of the product, high inside ownership, and the dedication of Chairman and CEO Donald Katz -- I believed the company would get past the bad times and flourish.

In September 2003, I bought in at $1.14 per share (pre-split). This was before I joined the Hidden Gems team, and unbeknownst to me, Tom Gardner placed it on his Hidden Gems Watch List in the October 2003 issue, citing a move toward positive free cash flow, non-dilutive management, top-line growth, and other improving fundamentals.

Since then, we've seen five straight quarters of positive cash from operations, two quarters of GAAP profitability, a reverse stock split (which raised my cost basis to $3.50 per share), a relisting on the Nasdaq, a deal with Apple to get content in the iTunes Music Store and to make the hot-selling iPod players "Audible ready," deals with Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and PalmOne (NASDAQ:PLMO), and a stock price that has risen some 300%.

Also, investors have come to realize the potential of Audible's distribution system. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has mentioned Audible as one of the small companies he most admires. I can't help wondering how much more efficient and profitable his business would be if it didn't have to mail out all those DVDs. One day, when broadband becomes even broader and other technology is in place, Netflix and competitors such as Blockbuster and even (NASDAQ:AMZN) will be able to distribute movies the same way Audible offers books. Perhaps Audible, with its first-mover expertise, will even have a hand in it all.

A Gem-dandy
My point here is not to extol the current virtues of this stock. It is very, very volatile and will likely take more wild swings in the future. The February drop occurred after management announced plans to sink some money back into the business to finance several growth initiatives. This will depress earnings in 2005 in order to boost profit in the years ahead. Though Katz is doing what good managers do -- investing in future growth -- this surprised investors and threw the stock for a loop. Unpredictability is the name of the game with small, growing companies. Who knows what the company's first-quarter earnings report will bring next week?

For purposes of this column, I think it's very instructive to look back at some of the characteristics that made Audible a Hidden Gem in the first place, a couple of years ago:

  1. After a period of decline, accelerating sales growth.
  2. High inside ownership.
  3. Non-dilutive, shareholder-friendly, dedicated management.
  4. Strong price appreciation potential based on Tom's valuation method.

Underfollowed and unloved
When we find companies like this at Hidden Gems, we become very interested and dig deeper, making sure that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. And the results so far have been excellent -- since the service began, stocks that Tom and his analysts have recommended have gained an average of 24%, vs. 5% for identical amounts invested in the S&P 500. If you're interested in our approach and want to receive two stock recommendations each month, Tom is offering a special 30-day free trial.

This column was originally published on Nov. 19, 2004. It has been updated.

Rex Moore has gone through four sets of earphones on his Rio 500. At the time of publication, he owned shares of Audible. The Fool has a disclosure policy.