This is Shana's story. Or rather, it's the story of Shana, her father, and a confluence of real-life events that inspired a Fool. It begins innocently enough with a proposition:

Shana's dad has some money to invest but neither the time nor the expertise (or so he thinks) to do the job himself. He does, however, have a secret weapon -- a daughter who works at The Motley Fool. Could we help a father out?

This is your life
Long story short, Shana and her dad are going to invest some money. Over the next few months, we will gradually put $8,000 to work -- and here's the catch -- in a portfolio of stocks recommended in Motley Fool newsletters.

There's more to it, but before we go on, two quick but important points: First, this is a family affair between Shana and her father (we are not running money), and, second, you are not Shana's dad. What's right for him may be absolutely wrong for you. Onward.

In future columns, you'll hear more about our journey through back issues, performance scorecards, CEO interview transcripts, online discussions, and a whole lot more. But I'm writing today because Shana and her father finally bought a stock.

No wing and a prayer
After poring over notebooks of newsletters, we scoured the members-only websites. Frankly, we had a blast. I was surprised by one thing, however: how difficult it was to overcome inertia, to actually take the plunge and buy a recommended stock. But we did it.

Actually, Shana did -- choosing a top pick from Tom Gardner's Motley Fool Hidden Gems roster. This despite the stock being up more than 50% from its IPO in November 2003 and more than 25% since Tom first recommended it in July 2004. It helps, certainly, that Tom is convinced that it has plenty of room to run.

As I said, buying this stock wasn't easy. We thought long and hard about starting out with a more conservative value play -- perhaps one that pays a dividend. In fact, we very nearly narrowed our search to Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) -- I would consider buying both myself.

On the growth side, we poked around eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) and Dell (NASDAQ:DELL). Both are more mature than Daddy's No. 1 pick, certainly. But both are also David Gardner favorites, legitimate Rule Breakers with solid brands and plenty of upside potential.

Are you looking for a home run?
But Shana's dad was clear: He was looking to build an aggressive stock portfolio. This put Tom Gardner and his Hidden Gems small-cap service right in the sweet spot. As I have argued, tomorrow's big winners are smaller, underfollowed companies today.

So we staked our claim in a dining concept you may know: The wings are hot, and they're popping up all over. Already, there are more than 250 locations nationwide. Yet with roughly 30% of existing locations in Ohio, there is plenty of room to grow into management's target of 1,000 restaurants.

Like most hidden gems, the company itself is cash-rich, with nearly $50 million on a balance sheet that is debt-free. Management is another real strength, led by Chairman Kenneth Dahlberg, a great business success with a half-century of experience.

Please take my advice
Trust me, I've heard my share of hot tips. This one guy I worked for was nuts for Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HDI) in the 1990s. I didn't buy. Big mistake. A thousand bucks in Harley in 1990 would buy you a new V-Rod today -- and two more as gifts for the kids. That hurts.

In fact, I've never bought a restaurant stock, either ... or, come to think of it, even a retail stock. This is especially curious, given that I write often about Peter Lynch and have always been a fan of his notion of the consumer as portfolio manager.

What gives? Well, like most investors coming up in the '90s, I was taken by new technologies and killer apps. I fretted right along with you over the comings and goings at Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:SUNW) and JDS Uniphase (NASDAQ:JDSU). Not to mention the host of tech outfits whose names we can barely recall.

Meanwhile, I slept on some great consumer brands. Love 'em or hate 'em, Wal-Mart and Starbucks took over the world and made investors rich. Unassuming mall rats Pacific Sunwear and American Eagle Outfitters both are up on the order of 2,000% since hitting the markets in the early '90s.

Ouch. I have a sneaking suspicion that Lynch loved all of these stocks, especially early in their growth phases. I have much more than a hunch that there is money to be made in simple retail concepts. Companies like Daddy's No. 1 pick.

What's in this for you
Shana's dad is an aggressive investor. You may not be. For balance, both Shana and I have opened portfolios of our own -- hers conservative, mine somewhere in the middle. Your needs likely fall somewhere else altogether, but we expect that there will be something here for almost everyone.

As for me, I love small caps. They seem suited to patient, longer-term investors. With the big guns on board, the markets in big daily traders are just too darn efficient. A hot small-cap restaurant concept, on the other hand, can creep higher and have a lot of horse left when Wall Street (gradually) climbs on. That's how I see it, at least.

In "How to Beat a Choppy Market," I insist that with discipline, a certain knack, and a lot of hard work, you can beat the pros with individual stocks. As proof, I held up as an example Motley Fool co-founder Tom Gardner, who is doing just that with Hidden Gems.

What to do next?
Minus a few sneers from old pals in "the business," I was encouraged by the response to my defense of independent stock pickers. Clearly, you have a healthy respect for this rudderless market. More importantly, you are serious about the prospects of independent stock research and of using it to get -- in the words of Peter Lynch -- one up on Wall Street.

But you are right to wonder: Can you really make money using investment newsletters? Or, more specifically, can I? I say yes. But like all fair questions, this one is hard to answer with confidence and outright impossible to answer with back tests. Turns out, investing really is like life -- best experienced in real time. So, here we go.

By the way, Daddy's No. 1 stock pick? It's Buffalo Wild Wings.

Performance tracker
I promised to keep you posted on Tom's progress. As of June 21, 2005, Hidden Gems recommendations are up an average 34.3%, vs. 9.7% for the S&P 500 over the same period. As always, all picks and results are posted on the Hidden Gems website (you can view it with a free trial).

If you want to learn all about Tom Gardner's approach to finding undervalued small-cap stocks, he is offering a special 30-day free trial to Hidden Gems. I hate to sound like a cheerleader, but it really is a painless way to find out whether a newsletter is right for you. Click here if you'd like to learn more.

This commentary was originally published on Dec. 3, 2004. It has been updated.

Fool writer Paul Elliott owns none of the stocks mentioned. Pfizer and Coca-Cola are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Dell and eBay are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors and maintains strict trading guidelines for employees. See the Fool's disclosure policyhere.