Ever hear the one about the guy from Santa Clara who bet the ranch on Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) in the mid-'80s, sold the stock, and retired 10 years later? It's the oldest story ever told. A decade earlier it was Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and the guy was from Omaha.

Either way, it's a fun story. But that sword cuts both ways, right? After all, what about the less-fortunate chumps who get wiped out when their hot stock tip suddenly goes belly-up, leaving them holding the bag? Isn't that the "problem" with buying lesser-known companies, after all? That they're a crapshoot?

Well, you're smart to think that way
Go to Harvard Business School, and they'll tell you the same thing. Be sure to pack a few hundred grand in small bills, though. Or save yourself some money and consider something else. What if the problem isn't with small-cap stocks, but with small-cap investors?

What if the problem with small caps is that they attract the wrong crowd? Maybe it's all those gamblers and daredevils, vying for the next home run, who create an "illusion" of a wacky and treacherous market.

Don't take my word for it -- reams of data support that contention. But there's something more important than any piece of data -- how you can use this "illusion" to make money.

Why small-cap investors get creamed
Any finance professor can tell you why small caps are risky. Markets are illiquid, for one thing. Earnings are lumpy and less dependable. Capital is costly and hard to secure, especially when times get tough.

All true, but I'm not convinced that's why small-cap investors get pummeled. It's more insidious than that. It's because they don't invest. They speculate on stock tips and high-risk story stocks with low-quality -- or worse, no -- real earnings. It's that simple.

Small-cap investors -- too many of them, at least-- ignore fundamentals. If you don't believe me, ask yourself this: When was the last time you heard some guy pumping a small-company stock at a party or on TV, and he wasn't focused entirely on the story? Hardly ever, right?

Then again, who wants a cigar butt?
Now, compare that with the stodgy old-timers who focus on mature large-cap, cigar-butt-and-smokestack companies trading at bargain prices. Could these guys be more boring? They never talk story. They're all assets, cash flows, and valuation.

That's why they don't earn their full potential, either. They're too busy picking over Wall Street's scrap heap. You could have made money on a fallen angel like Merck (NYSE:MRK) last year -- I did myself -- or by taking a chance on Ford (NYSE:F) right now, but their triples and quadruples are behind them. They're just too big.

The Holy Grail, obviously, would be to take the old-school valuation techniques made famous by Ben Graham and Warren Buffett and apply them to up-and-coming smaller companies, while their growth spurts are still ahead. Again, I know it sounds simple, but you'd be amazed at how few investors even give it a shot.

Forget "the next home run stock"
If you're a regular here, you know about my run-ins with Motley Fool co-founder Tom Gardner. Along with folks like Chuck Royce and David Nierenberg (who we had the pleasure of meeting here at Fool HQ this week) Tom and his crew over at Motley Fool Hidden Gems are among the folks I've seen cashing in on this little "trick."

The trick, of course, is shunning "the next big thing" and buying small businesses with strong fundamentals at good prices -- in other words, small-cap value. The guys I just mentioned make money in small caps by balancing "story" and "potential" with fundamentals and valuation.

After all, that's what led investors to Wal-Mart in the '70s. They turned a $5,000 investment into $2.5 million. But what exactly was so great about Sam Walton's general store back in 1975? Take a look at how Wal-Mart compared with some of today's whisper-stock party tips:




Sales CAGR

Earnings CAGR

Wal-Mart (1975)





Mamma.com (NASDAQ:MAMA)










Aastrom Biosciences (NASDAQ:ASTM)





*Revenue and income data are TTM and in millions. Data courtesy of Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Wal-Mart data courtesy of company filings.

Clearly, while Wal-Mart delivered rapidly expanding revenues and profits back in 1975, that's not the case at the other companies in the table.

Now, I'm not saying these companies don't have potential. But you can see how they are mostly "potential." Speculating on these stocks may work out for you, but it also may not. The safer play is to dig up small caps like Wal-Mart -- when they're still small caps -- that can make you a lot of money methodically over the years.

After all, this "trick" turned $1,000 into $33 million
Granted, it took nearly 70 years to do it, but still ... according to Ibbotson Associates, if you'd invested $1,000 in small-cap value stocks back in 1927, you'd have more than $33 million by now.

That's three times as much as you'd have if you'd invested in a broad basket of small caps, and more than 15 times better than if you'd bought large caps instead. Will those numbers hold up? Well, Tom Gardner has been mining small-cap value at Hidden Gems for just a couple of years now, but judge for yourself.

So far, Tom has alerted his subscribers to more than 60 small-cap value stocks. More than a dozen subsequently doubled or more, and as of this morning, the entire portfolio is up 48.7% on average. That's compared with a respectable 21.6% if you'd bought the S&P 500 instead.

How about some really good news?
Now, you don't have to pay Harvard to find these great small-cap values. You can get Ben Graham's Security Analysis at the library. If you're up for flipping through 700 pages, that is. But there may be an even easier way -- and there's no speculation required.

Join Tom Gardner and Bill Mann at Hidden Gems free for 30 days. Check out the complete Hidden Gems service for a full month, including access to all of Tom and Bill's recommendations and all back issues. Then take a whole month to decide whether you want to join.

I guarantee you'll meet lots of friendly and knowledgeable folks, and there's no pressure to subscribe. Best of all, the first lesson is always on Tom. To take advantage of this free trial, click here.

This article was originally published on Feb. 17, 2006. It has been updated.

Fool writer Paul Elliott promises to keep you posted on Tom Gardner's progress at Hidden Gems (yes, through good times and bad). You can view all Hidden Gems picks on his scorecard with your free trial. Intel and Wal-Mart are Inside Value picks. Merck is a former Income Investor pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.