The greatest stocks of the past decade are not the ones you'd expect. I wouldn't have been able to name any of the top 10 on the spot -- which just goes to show that we probably haven't even heard of the best 10 stocks of the next 10 years. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Without further ado, the 10 top performers:

Company

Current Market Cap*

Return, June 1996 to June 2006

Hansen Natural

$3,720

23,330%

Christopher & Banks

$1,080

15,916%

Daktronics

$1,100

5,032%

Chico's

$4,160

4,696%

NVR

$3,020

4,524%

Celgene

$16,210

3,514%

Frontier Oil

$3,980

3,356%

Meritage Homes

$1,110

3,260%

Expeditors International

$9,200

2,803%

Yahoo!

$38,540

2,729%

Average Return

6,916%

*In millions. Historical price data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

More than a few things are shocking about this list. First, these companies are, for the most part, obscure. Hansen Natural -- the greatest stock of the past decade -- has sold all-natural juices and sodas since the 1930s. Chico's sells clothes to women in their 30s and older, and 10 years ago it had fewer than 250 stores.

Even Yahoo! -- a household name today -- was just a $700 million Internet venture 10 years ago.

Ten years ago, none of these companies were heavily followed by the pros on Wall Street, and even more incredibly, some still aren't.

Finally, none of these companies were worth more than $1 billion 10 years ago. Now compare their performance with the 10 best large caps:

Company

Current Market Cap*

Return, June 1996
to June 2006

Dell (NASDAQ:DELL)

$50,590

1,330%

Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM)

$57,800

1,139%

Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX)

$23,620

1,029%

Lehman Brothers (NYSE:LEH)

$36,510

969%

Apple Computer (NASDAQ:AAPL)

$57,860

826%

Capital One Financial

$23,800

740%

Golden West Financial

$23,580

699%

SLM

$21,110

647%

Kohl's (NYSE:KSS)

$20,130

596%

Lowe's (NYSE:LOW)

$44,990

593%

Average Return

857%

*In millions. Historical price data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

The market's 10 best stocks of the past 10 years -- all small caps -- absolutely pummeled the very best large caps.

The Foolish bottom line
The greatest stocks of the last decade started out:

  1. Obscure.
  2. Ignored.
  3. Small.

Now, how many investors are searching for today's market-beating returns among the Microsofts and Dells of the world? Thirty-two and 22 analysts follow these stocks, respectively. But these companies can't beat the market -- they are the market!

So if you want to find the 10 best stocks of the next 10 years, you need to start small -- as in small caps. These are exactly the types of companies we're following at Motley Fool Hidden Gems. We don't care about Microsoft. Instead, we follow Blackboard, an $800 million software firm that supplies 2,225 educational institutions, with 90% product renewal rates.

But an $800 million company is probably still too big to be one of the 10 best when we look back in 2016. That's why we also offer Tiny Gems, promising companies capitalized at less than $200 million. One of the next 10 best will likely come from there.

To take a look at the more than 60 small caps we're following and the Tiny Gems we've dug up, click here to take a free trial to Hidden Gems. You may not have heard of our companies, but that's exactly the point.

This article was originally published on Dec. 29, 2005. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson owns shares of Blackboard. Microsoft and Dell are Inside Value recommendations. Dell and Starbucks are Stock Advisor picks. No Fool is too cool fordisclosure.