Our goal at Motley Fool Hidden Gems is to find the best small companies to own for the next three to 35 years. It's a wonderful aim -- historical data illustrates that small-cap stocks, particularly of the value variety, have substantially outperformed the overall market over the past 40 years.

To optimize our returns, we look to sell our mistakes quickly, hold sound companies for an average of three years, and then, yes, maintain our stakes in the very best of the lot for a quarter of a century or more.

The best time to sell shares of a truly superior small company is almost never. That becomes apparent when you look at the early chart of any winner. There were plenty of times in the early going when superstars like Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and IBM (NYSE:IBM) appeared to have exceeded their "fair value" or become "overextended," in Wall-Street phraseology. But investors selling after these stocks first doubled missed out on some life-changing multibaggers in the years that followed.

It's been nearly six years, and our Hidden Gems cumulative returns are gratifying. Despite one of the worst recent climates imaginable for small-cap stocks, our recommendations are beating the S&P 500 by an average of six percentage points each.

There's no question that we'll have down periods. Recessions can be nasty for small companies' stocks. But over time, we expect to outperform the general market by buying and holding onto the next wave of great American companies.

How do we find them? Think Wal-Mart.
One way to find the future greats is to carefully study the major winners of the past. Relatively few multidecade superstars are whiz-bang technology companies. And while we don't avoid tech stocks in Hidden Gems, they are a minority of our selections. We instead favor sleepy and underfollowed companies with high-quality management. Our unassuming successes thus far include speech-recognition firm Nuance Communications (NASDAQ:NUAN) and restaurateur Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD).

But for the ultimate example, think Wal-Mart.

In November 1980, Wal-Mart was trading at a split- and dividend-adjusted $0.16 per share. That's right, $0.16. But let's be clear: The stock was selling at $50 per share then, so it wasn't ever a penny stock. We think it's nearly impossible to become a penny stock millionaire -- despite the mischievous title we placed on this article. No, the greatest stocks are those of real companies, with real earnings. Because of stock splits, some investors think you'll find the next Wally World while searching among 20-cent stocks. You won't.

So what has Wal-Mart done since 1980 (which was a full decade after it went public)?

With the stock trading around $48 as of this writing, it has returned 300 times in value over the past 28 years. A $5,000 investment then is worth more than $1.5 million today. That'll clean up a lot of investment mistakes!

But what if we go all the way back to Wal-Mart's IPO, when it became a public company in October 1970? The business was valued at a tiny $21.5 million then. That means the stock is up roughly 10,000 times since. That's more than 27% growth per year, and it would have turned a $5,000 investment into $50 million today.

When the company went public, it raised $4.5 million in cash to pay down debts. Wal-Mart was nothing back then. No one knew about it. Hardly anyone followed it -- while dozens covered the once-iconic Sears (NASDAQ:SHLD). None of the big boys on Wall Street really cared about it. And that plays right into Hidden Gems' sweet spot. Wal-Mart went on to be a great American growth story; Sears wallowed, and was eventually snapped up by Eddie Lampert and down-market Kmart.

Reverse-engineering a superstar
Now it's time to pick out the qualities of what has been one of the greatest 25-year investments in the history of our species. Here are the traits of Wal-Mart in its early days, qualities that we also look for at Hidden Gems:

  • After just a few years in the public markets, it began paying a dividend and never stopped -- amazing for such a tiny company.
  • Related to that point, its dividend started in the teeth of a bear market in the early 1970s. That said a lot about the strength of its financials.
  • Wall Street treated the company like it was a bunch of Arkansas hillbillies. For years, no analysts followed it.
  • For years and years, institutional ownership was well below 50%. As we said, hardly anyone cared.
  • Sam Walton owned the majority of the stock. Here was a founder with a stake in the organization's enduring success.
  • Its concept was new and innovative, yet proven. Wal-Mart had been in business for eight years before going public, with more than 30 stores and more than $32 million in sales on the day of its IPO.
  • It had a compelling valuation, trading at just 0.67 times sales when it came public.

Find the next one
We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here at Hidden Gems; we don't need to. There's something on the order of 100 years of researchable history of the U.S. stock markets and tons of data available over the past 25 years. The Internet makes much of the research relatively quick and easy.

There are also numerous masters who have shared fully formed ideas on how to earn extraordinary returns in small caps -- from Peter Lynch to Charles Royce to Warren Buffett to Martin Whitman. By combining our research capabilities with the outstanding principles these folks have handed down, we can do a lot together to increase your wealth over the long term.

That's is the aim of our Hidden Gems community every day, with thousands of members working together and examining the more than 5,000 public companies capitalized at less than $2 billion. We see the early outperformance in the long-term charts for eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) and Toyota (NYSE:TM) (rocky though it's been), and we study their early histories.

We have no doubt we'll find some of the market's major winners over the next three to 35 years. Panning for these small-cap studs is our full-time work -- and our mission statement.

If you'd like full access to our service for a trial run of 30 days, let us know. It's free, and there's no obligation. You can see all of our investment recommendations, with full details on each, in our search for the next Wal-Mart-like winner.

This article was originally published Dec. 17, 2004. It has been updated.

Tom Gardner is co-founder of The Motley Fool. He does not own shares of any company mentioned. Rex Moore is a Stock Advisor analyst and owns shares of Buffalo Wild Wings and eBay. Buffalo Wild Wings and Nuance Communications are Motley Fool Hidden Gems picks. Sears, eBay, and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. eBay is also a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Buffalo Wild Wings and covered calls on Intel. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.