Small-cap stocks sure have bounced around this year. The Russell 2000, the leading index for small-cap stocks, is down 10% from the all-time highs it hit in the spring. Should you book profits from its multiyear run-up now, afraid of the next downturn? Let's be contrary: Abandon emotion, and instead study history.

Master investors who've used market declines to build out their positions in great companies have accumulated enormous wealth. When valuations collapse, they don't run for the hills; they run in from them to buy more. And instead of trying to time the market with a quick sale, they have proved that the best way to build wealth is to hold on for years after the first new highs have been hit.

Take a look at a company like Adobe Systems (NASDAQ:ADBE). The software publishing firm went public in 1986. The market collapsed a year later, and Adobe's market cap was cut in half. Yet the small cap had a super-strong balance sheet, dedicated leadership, and a widening market opportunity.

Here we are 20 years later. Adobe is still supervised by its two founders, John Warnock and Charles Geschke. Over these intervening years, the stock has fallen 50% or more on six separate occasions. There've been numerous short-term periods when owning Adobe felt like a magnificent mistake. Heck, from September 2000 to September 2002, Adobe dropped 75% as technology stocks were sold indiscriminately.

Yet over these 20 years, Adobe Systems has risen 60 times in value, turning a $10,000 investment into $600,000. That amounts to 22% yearly growth with taxes deferred. It's a market-crushing return, a thing of beauty that doesn't even include the dividends it began paying out back in 1990.

This is exactly the sort of business we stalk in Motley Fool Hidden Gems, because it features the following traits:

  1. Devoted leadership.
  2. A sound balance sheet.
  3. Early dividend payments.
  4. A wide market opportunity.
  5. A broken stock price.

Lest you imagine that Adobe Systems is an isolated example, look at the commercial characteristics and investment returns of AFLAC (NYSE:AFL), MedicisPharmaceutical (NYSE:MRX), Christopher & Banks (NYSE:CBK), Best Buy (NYSE:BBY), Expeditors International (NASDAQ:EXPD), or Legg Mason (NYSE:LM). Each suffered numerous 30% to 50% declines in the journey from small to large cap. Yet each absolutely crushed the market's return over the past 10 to 30 years.

We've found a number of these companies, so it only makes sense that we're pleased as pudding by the opportunity to add to them when the market declines, and we're more than willing to hold them when the market is up. You can view my favorite small-cap companies now by taking a free trial to Hidden Gems, with no obligation to subscribe.

This article was originally published on May 9, 2005. It has been updated.

Tom Gardner is co-founder of The Motley Fool and lead analyst of Motley Fool Hidden Gems. Tom does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. AFLAC and Best Buy are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool has adisclosure policy.