I assume that you, like everyone and his or her Aunt Avis, would love to find the next Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) -- to dig out the market's best before anyone else. Back in January 1990, Microsoft traded at a split- and dividend-adjusted $0.54 per share. Today, the stock is around $24. That's an increase of more than 43 times for long-term investors. Put another way, $5,000 invested in Microsoft in 1990 is worth more than $217,000 today.

Of course, you'd love to buy the next Microsoft. But you wouldn't want to take on extraordinary risk, right?

I think you're smart to think that way. And so does a long list of great money managers -- from Peter Lynch to Seth Klarman, Jean-Marie Eveillard to Charles Royce. They all search for small companies with a mixture of sales and free cash flow growth, superior returns on invested capital, heavy insider ownership, and healthy assets -- all at a reasonable price.

Born to be the best
But remember, companies like Microsoft typically display excellent financials from the day they hit the public markets. Microsoft was never a penny stock (again, that $0.54 in January 1990 was split- and dividend-adjusted). It didn't hype itself in press releases, nor did management make outlandish promises to investors.

Companies like Microsoft are run conservatively by executives who themselves own large positions. They're run to sustain profit growth indefinitely. That's in contrast to the whisper-stock party tips that destroy wealth over time.

Contrary to popular perception, to invest in the best small caps, you need not assume substantial risk.

And finding these stocks doesn't involve some desperate dig through barn-sized haystacks in search of the elusive platinum needle. The public markets feature plenty of promising smaller companies run successfully by founders with large personal stakes in the business. In fact, they thrive in every industry -- technology, grocery, health care, and beyond. Take a look at these five great investments from 1996 to today.

Aug. 1996*

Aug. 2006

Return on Investment

Daktronics (NASDAQ:DAKT)




Whole Foods Market




MDC Holdings (NYSE:MDC)




M Systems Flash Disk Pioneers








*All prices adjusted for splits and dividends.

Note, again, that this group hails from a broad variety of sectors. Some are familiar consumer brands, while others -- Daktronics, for example -- are to this day largely unknown on Main Street. But each was a small cap 10 years ago. And not only weren't they industry stalwarts, but they were also largely unknown to consumers and investors. They had yet to attract a cadre of Wall Street analysts and big institutional investors.

And their stock prices reflected it. They were small because people thought they were irrelevant!

They're what we search for together, every day, in Motley Fool Hidden Gems. And these sorts of opportunities do exist today. Witness armor maker Ceradyne's (NASDAQ:CRDN) double since August 2004.

The next big thing
The 20-baggers to 700-baggers of the next 15 years are out there right now, with their fuses lit and a wide-open sky above them. But they aren't Microsoft. They're companies not yet covered by 32 analysts.

They're companies with founding leadership, or at least significant insider ownership. They don't have debt concerns. They generate excess cash from their operations. They function without any real reliance on Wall Street for financing or table-pounding "strong buy" ratings.

I know it sounds contrary, but I want you to consider that many of these small businesses offer rewards that substantially exceed the risks of owning them. How could a small company be less risky than a larger one? Well, the mere fact that even the best-run small companies are underfollowed on Wall Street creates pricing inefficiencies that strongly favor long-term investors.

Does that sound possible? Does it sound logical? It's certainly contrary.

The small-cap risk myth
We're accustomed to thinking that small-cap stocks must be speculations. They must be riskier than big, friendly corporate names that have always seemed to be there for us. But are they? In the best small-capitalization stocks, you'll find the following features that mitigate the risk of owning them:

  1. Founders with large personal stakes.
  2. Financial statements that are easy to read.
  3. A solid asset base with little or no debt.
  4. Price ratios that significantly undershoot growth rates of free cash flow.
  5. Dominant positioning in a profitable niche.
  6. Plenty of room to grow.

If you're inclined to think that every small-capitalization stock is doomed to get stomped out by a larger competitor, I ask you to return to my list above. They all rose up from obscurity through sound financial management and shareholder-friendly practices. The free markets provided them plenty of maneuvering room. And the free markets today provide plenty of competitive space for small companies led by numbers-driven founders whose wealth will grow over the next 15 years, based principally on the performance of their stock.

But because not every small company is poised for enduring success, I evaluate more than 100 of the 3,000-plus small-cap stocks out there -- all in search of one great Hidden Gems recommendation each month. As for the others, I find that 90% are too richly valued or too speculative, given the underlying business. But that remaining 10% leaves us with hundreds of small caps that will beat the market, and dozens that will rise more than 20 times in value over the next 15 years.

You can read about this, and all of my Hidden Gems recommendations now, by signing up for a 30-day free trial. There's no obligation to subscribe. You have my word.

This article was originally published on Sept. 24, 2003. It has been updated.

Tom Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, owns shares of Microsoft, which is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Whole Foods is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.