For "small" investors like you and me, the secret to successful investing is this: Stand on the shoulders of giants. To beat the market averages year after year, closely study the pros who have done just that. Start with the standard investing classics:

  • Ben Graham's The Intelligent Investor
  • Peter Lynch's One Up on Wall Street
  • Philip Fisher's Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits

Problem is, our competition, way out there in investing land, has probably read all of these, too. They know the rules of "buy under book value," "buy what you know," and "never sell." And so, to beat them, we must go further. To be not just individual investors but wealthy individual investors, we must also research the investing strategies of:

  • John Neff, the manager who took over Windsor Fund at age 32 and revived this broken franchise, leading it to 32 years of trouncing the S&P with bold, contrarian picks like DaimlerChrysler.
  • Shelby Davis, the New York insurance analyst who grew a $50,000 account into nearly $900 million over five decades of investing in good times and bad.
  • Hetty Green, the 19th-century investing maven who over a lifetime of investing in stocks built a fortune valued at $20 billion in today's dollars.

Neff, Davis, and Green, as well as dozens of other very successful but poorly publicized personages, are the unsung heroes of the individual investor. These are the teachers we must study. These will be the inspiration and the source of our success.

Through continual study of these investing giants (both the famous and the not-so-much), Fool co-founder Tom Gardner and his Motley Fool Hidden Gems team have soundly beaten the market averages (since inception, the newsletter picks are beating the S&P 500 by an average of 23 percentage points). Today, I'd like to share with you five simple nuggets of wisdom that Tom and his team use every day.

1. Must have cash
A company in debt makes investors fret. When interest rates rise, so, too, does the cost of servicing debts -- and that saps strength from profits. If you own shares of Gannett (NYSE:GCI) which -- in addition to facing a difficult operating environment -- carries more than $5 billion in net debt, be wary of the Fed. The same goes for owners of Tribune (NYSE:TRB) -- $654 million in cash and $2.4 billion in long-term debt -- and Knight Ridder (NYSE:KRI) -- $206 million in cash and $2 billion in debt. Conversely, shareholders of a media company like Pixar (NASDAQ:PIXR) -- whose treasury brims with more than $670 million and no debt -- can rest a bit easier.

2. Must have real profits
Heed the words of Third Avenue head Marty Whitman: "What the numbers mean is more important than what the numbers are." In this sense, "what the numbers are" is profits under generally accepted accounting principles -- and Enron taught us how truly malleable such numbers can be. The savvy value investor prefers companies that generate cold, hard cash profits -- free cash flow. While pleased to see that Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) had $8.1 billion in net income over the past 12 months, he'd have focused more (and even more happily) on the more than $13 billion in actual cash generated on the company's cash flow statement.

3. Must have owner-operators
You tell me: Would shareholders of Tyco be better off today if Dennis Kozlowski and his gang had owned more than a fraction of 1% of the company they were robbing? When a company's managers own a stake in the business -- what we call "insider ownership" -- this creates a real disincentive to steal. Owner-operators of a business are natural allies of outside shareholders; when the business prospers, everybody wins. That's why, when researching potential Hidden Gems, we prefer small caps such as Watsco (NYSE:WSO). The heating and cooling company has grown revenue more than 17% per year for the past 10 years, and chairman and CEO Albert Nahmad continues to own nearly 14% of the business. It's no coincidence that the stock has roughed up the S&P by 12 percentage points on average over the same time frame.

4. Must have large font
The most recent 10-K filing for energy giant Chevron (NYSE:CVX) ran to more than 110 pages, replete with discussions on pipelines, tankers, chemicals, capitalized exploratory costs, and a lengthy discussion of taxes. While Chevron deserves credit for its thoroughness, there is simply no way to put a confident value on this company or account for all of the risk scenarios. Meanwhile, little Blackboard, an educational software company on the Hidden Gems roster whose stock is already up 57% in eight months, offers its investors a mere 63 pages of reading material. Heck, with all that space, the company could go wild and print its financials in easy-to-read 12-point font -- and investors would still have less paper to plow through. More important than the font size, though, is the fact that smaller companies like Blackboard are transparent. Fewer pages mean fewer places to hide inconvenient facts. It means we're less likely to be surprised and less likely to invest in something we do not understand.

5. Must (not) have sex appeal
And while we're on the subject of things we don't understand -- satellite radio, anyone? nano-stem-fuel cells? -- companies like WorldSpace, Altair Nanotechnologies, ViaCell, and Ballard have two things in common: They're all "hot" stocks and they're all losing money hand over fist. At Hidden Gems, we leave the fast money to the day traders and stick to our knitting -- finding great, profitable, unknown companies that make for great, profitable, who-cares-if-you-know-about-it-it-made-me-rich investments. I suggest you do the same.

So there you have it: five tips the average individual can use to find promising investments. The team at Hidden Gems follows these precepts -- and many more that they've picked up from the world's greatest market minds. If you'd like to join Tom and his gang, just click right here and sign up for 30 free days. You'll have access to the entire list of 50-plus cash-rich, profitable, owner-run, easy-to-understand, and boring-as-all-get-out companies, all for one low price -- nothing.

Of course, if you find you like what we have to offer, we'd love to have you stick with the service. But we have a firm policy around here: If you aren't thrilled with Hidden Gems, you may cancel at any time -- no strings attached. So have no fear, sign up right here.

This article was originally published on Aug. 25, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. If he did, we'd make him tell you about it. Pfizer and Tyco are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Pixar is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation.