Just like fishermen, investors love to tell tales of "the stock that got away."

We speak remorsefully about the stocks that could have, would have, or should have made us a fortune -- if only we had made an investment.

Maybe you were an early customer of Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) and American Eagle (NASDAQ:AEOS) in the 1990s, but didn't invest in either back then. Now, each time you hear that they're two of the market's 10 best stocks over the past decade, you wish you could time-travel back to 1997 and invest just $1,000 in each company. Today, those tiny investments would be worth $41,820 and $79,840, respectfully.

Sadly, the flux capacitor is fictional.

Mustard seeds
"The stock that got away" is usually a small company that made it to the big leagues; which makes sense, because those are the stocks with the most room to grow. You simply don't hear stories about people missing the boat on megacaps like DuPont (NYSE:DD) or Anheuser-Busch (NYSE:BUD). Unless the storyteller was born in 1902.

That's because, while large companies like these may have many years of steady growth ahead of them, their high growth stages have long since passed.

One of the worst things an investor can do is invest in "the stock that got away" after it has reached large-cap status, thinking it will repeat its past performance. The law of diminishing returns makes this a very difficult feat.


Return 1987-1997

Return 1997-2007

Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO)






Medtronic (NYSE:MDT)



Data provided by Capital IQ and Yahoo! Finance.
*Returns since 1990 IPO.

While the most recent returns for these companies are nothing to scoff at, they pale in comparison to their previous 10-year returns.

By 1997, these companies were too big to repeat their incredible performances. Cisco, for example, grew from a $400 million small cap in 1990 to a $47 billion large cap in just seven short years. If it had maintained that growth rate over the next 10 years, it would be a $4.9 trillion company in 2007 -- 11 times as large as ExxonMobil.

Catch the next one
The good news is there's no need to dwell on "the stock that got away" -- tomorrow's big catches are out there right now, masquerading as small caps. The problem is, it can be hard to locate tomorrow's winners among the thousands of small companies on the market.

To get started, look for companies that have founders with large personal stakes, little or no debt on their books, and dominant positioning in their market niche. These are some of the criteria Fool co-founder Tom Gardner and the Motley Fool Hidden Gems team use to select small-cap stocks for their subscribers. That tack works -- since July 2003, their strategy has outperformed the market by 27 percentage points. If you'd like, a 30-day free trial will give you access to every one of their stock recommendations. Just click here to get started -- there's no obligation to subscribe.

Today is a great day to start your free trial -- Hidden Gems released two new picks at noon ET today.

Urban Outfitters was the one that got away from Todd Wenning. He does not own shares of any company mentioned. Best Buy and American Eagle are Motley Fool Stock Advisor choices. Anheuser-Busch is an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.