Hey buddy, want some personal investment advice? OK, listen up!

If you own stocks, you should own small caps. Of course, that's not personal investment advice. That's Wall Street's worst-kept secret: Over the long haul, small-company stocks outperform their mid- and large-cap peers.

You're serious about this
Otherwise, you wouldn't still be reading. And you want an edge. So, why make this difficult? Everybody knows that investors out to make the most money over the long term buy common stocks.

At least, they have since Ibbotson Associates started keeping tabs back in 1926. Investors who make even more buy small caps, also according to Ibbotson.

The way I see it, we have a few choices. We can take a chance on a small-cap fund that keeps its costs in check. We can buy a low-cost exchange-traded fund (ETF). Or we can start building a portfolio of our own.

You're a Fool ... and so am I
Naturally, we favor the do-it-yourself approach. Well, sort of. You see, I've been a small-cap investor for years, but I also have the occasional cup of joe with Tom Gardner. Tom has made a career out of digging up well-run small companies -- and he never shuts up about it.

And you know what? I'm man enough to admit that Tom and his team at Motley Fool Hidden Gems are building a stable of small caps I probably couldn't have found on my own. What's his secret? I think it's that Tom focuses on value, while I tend to get wowed by story.

Yet for all our differences, we both look for the same things in great small companies. Then again, it's not like it's a system either one of us invented. Smart investors always look for:

  1. Solid management with significant stakes.
  2. Great, sustainable businesses.
  3. Dominant positions in niche markets.
  4. Sterling balance sheets.
  5. Strong free cash flow.

I know it's hard to imagine, but these same traits gave investors the courage to follow Scott McNealy into Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:SUNW), Steve Jobs into Apple Computer (NASDAQ:AAPL), and even Andy Grove into Intel (NASDAQ:INTC). All were life-changing investments in the 1990s.

Good work if you can get it
I know what you're thinking: Who wouldn't want a portfolio filled with stocks like that? And you're right. That's why you'll never beat the pros with familiar names like those now -- if they're really all that, they're going to cost you.

So what are you going to do? Take a chance on some fly-by-night outfit? Good point. But notice I said well-known stocks -- not companies. There's a difference. For example, big retailers like Lowe's and TJX (NYSE:TJX) -- the folks responsible for TJMaxx stores -- are heavily owned now, but I remember when both were underfollowed on Wall Street (and I'm not that old).

Need more proof?
Check out Tim Hanson's list of the best-performing stocks of the past 10 years. I'm willing to bet Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) is the only one of the 10 you'll ever hear about from your broker. And that's no coincidence. Though you might easily recognize Chico's FAS (NYSE:CHS) from "real life."

You see, there's your edge: You can always find established, profitable companies with unknown stocks. Some you've heard of; some you may not have -- yet. Some even dominate their markets. Peter Lynch was a master at finding these gems, earning his Fidelity Magellan fundholders nearly 30% year after year.

How to get rolling
Back in September 2003, I suggested you take a look at a pair of small-cap ETFs. I'd bought the iSharesS&P 600 Growth Index (IJT) at about $65 earlier in the year and was thrilled with my returns. I pledged to buy the sister fund, iSharesS&P 600 Value Index (IJS), next -- a promise thankfully kept.

Even after last summer's small-cap pullback, the growth fund has nearly doubled in three years. The value fund has fared even better. Apparently, folks who pronounced the small-cap rally dead back in September 2003 were dead wrong. (My hunch is that there are even more doubters now -- and that they're still wrong.)

More importantly, these funds trade like stocks, giving you quick and dirty small-cap exposure without the stress of taking the plunge on the stocks of individual companies.

What to do now
If you ask me, a strategy of holding these funds and then shifting gradually into the stocks Tom tells you about each month in his Hidden Gems newsletter is a winner. But sooner or later, you probably want to be exposed to at least a few small businesses with big potential. That's where the fun is.

Meanwhile, I promised to keep you posted on Hidden Gems' performance -- in good times and bad. As of this morning, the recommendations are up, on average, 45.5%. That's compared with 19.6% if you'd invested in the S&P 500 for the same period. Not bad.

Learn more about how Wall Street's worst-kept secret can help you finally beat the pros. Tom Gardner is offering a free trial to his complete Hidden Gems service. You can take it up directly with him and sneak a peek at all of his recommendations and every one of his back newsletter issues. To learn more, simply click here.

This article was originally published on Jan. 7, 2005. It has been updated.

Paul Elliott owns shares of the iShares S&P 600 Growth Index and the iShares S&P 600 Value Index, but no other securities mentioned in this article. Best Buy is a Stock Advisor pick. Intel is an Inside Value pick. The Motley Fool has a full disclosure policy.