It's October 1988, and as the underdog Los Angeles Dodgers shock the Oakland A's in the World Series, Progressive Insurance is trading at $24. Adjusted for splits and dividends, that's around $0.55 per share.

Two decades later, with the Phillies now world champs, Progressive sits at around $15. In other words, it's been a 27-bagger over the past 20 years, turning a $5,000 investment into $135,000. I believe there are several lessons to be drawn from the Progressive story that will help your future investing performance -- lessons that have helped our own strong performance in Motley Fool Hidden Gems. I'd like to share them with you today.

1. The power of patience
Meaningful gains do not happen overnight, of course. In late 1988, George H.W. Bush -- the father, not the son -- had just won the presidential election. That's certainly not ancient history, but the point is that it took 20 years for Progressive to increase this much in value. Time and patience are two of the most important factors in investing, and they can help overcome mediocre performance thanks to the power of compounding returns.

Consider that a person contributing $2,500 yearly to an IRA, and earning an excellent average annual return of 15%, will accumulate about $116,000 after 14 years. Yet someone who started investing just four years earlier can beat that total by nearly $10,000 -- while earning an average return of only 10%. The important thing is to simply get in the game as soon as you can. Once you're in, hurry up and be patient.

2. Small is big
Back before it started its fantastic run, Progressive was valued at just $300 million -- a small cap by any measure. Today's future 30-baggers will also be small companies. They won't carry Toyota's (NYSE:TM) $99 billion market cap, for example. While it may very well provide solid returns over the next few years, Toyota's massive size will limit it's ability to achieve jaw-dropping gains. Progressive itself can't even be the next Progressive, because it now sports a $10 billion market cap. That's not nearly as big as Toyota, but still too big to achieve outrageous gains in the future.

Small companies offer individual investors like us many other advantages. Most institutional investors, with billions of dollars to allocate, must avoid small caps -- at least until they grow larger. That makes small caps underfollowed, increasing the chances that they're misvalued.

To see why, consider an analogy we've used before. The less activity in a marketplace or auction house, the higher the probability of pricing inefficiencies. When there's only one bidder for an autographed Michael Jordan game jersey, the chances for mispricing are infinitely higher than when thousands of investors bid every day -- or every hour -- on the present price of, say, Ford (NYSE:F) stock, which trades some 70 million shares each day. That inefficiency provides opportunity for us smaller investors.

3. A penny shaved
Progressive was never a penny stock trading for less than $1 per share. Future 10- and 100-baggers -- at least, the ones we care about -- most often trade between $5 and $50 per share. They're rarely below $5, and they certainly aren't below $1.

Penny stocks represent ultra-tiny companies whose shares can easily be manipulated by unscrupulous people misrepresenting the businesses' true potential. In short, stay away from stocks that aren't traded on one of the major U.S. markets (the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, or American Stock Exchange), that have no revenue, or that are obviously being hyped via email or discussion boards. You'll save yourself a ton of grief.

4. Dandy dividends
In our research, we're constantly studying past big winners to find the common ties that bind them. Cell-phone giant Nokia (NYSE:NOK), retailer Home Depot (NYSE:HD), and pharmaceutical titan Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) all have different business models and capital structures. But all have trounced the market over the years, and all have paid a dividend ever since they were small companies.

Just because a company is small and pays a dividend doesn't mean it is automatically destined for greatness. But a dividend is a positive indicator, a telling sign of both financial strength and management's confidence that the company will remain solid through good times and bad. Progressive began paying its dividend early on, back when it was still capitalized at around $250 million.

5. Shareholder-friendly
In any company we research, we believe it's extremely important that management's interests are aligned with those of the shareholders. While investors want to see their shares outperform over the years, managers who are indifferent to the stock price may be more interested in hiring friends and grabbing perks than creating value.

That's why we love to see strong insider ownership at a company. Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison is a good example; he owns 22% of the firm. Peter Lewis, Progressive's chairman and founder, still owns more than 7% of the company. His stake is worth greater than $700 million today. If you want to talk about leadership with a vested interest in a business' long-term success, this is the perfect example.

6. Boring excitement
A world-class company like Progressive must be headquartered in New York, right? Or Hartford, Conn., the "Insurance Capital of America"? Nope. It hails from Mayfield Village, Ohio, in the eastern suburbs of Cuyahoga County, about 20 miles from Cleveland. Low-key. No flash. A bit boring, even.

Reminds me of the early days of Wal-Mart, when the company didn't raise an eyebrow among big-time analysts. Wall Street treated Sam Walton's boys like a bunch of hillbillies, it seemed. But these sleepy, small, "boring" companies -- with no hype built into their stock price -- can offer outstanding bargains to us individual investors.

Putting it together
Beating the market with small-cap stocks, as we've been doing in Hidden Gems, is not as difficult as you might think. We simply start by looking at what has worked in the past, and then we go looking for it again.

Hidden Gems is more than five years old, and our average recommendation is beating the S&P 500 by six percentage points. If you'd like to check out all of our recommendations, plus the top five small caps for new money now, we're offering a 30-day free trial. Click here to give it a whirl.

This article was originally published on April 8, 2005. It has been updated.

Rex Moore is a Stock Advisor analyst and contributes the Foolish 8 screens to Hidden Gems. He does not own shares of any company mentioned. The Fool owns shares of Pfizer. Wal-Mart, Pfizer, and Home Depot are Inside Value recommendations. Pfizer is also an Income Investor choice. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.