"Over the years, small-cap stocks crush their large- and mid-cap peers."

That's how I planned to start today. By now, I'd be proving my case -- dropping names like Nagel and Quigley and 70 years' worth of Ibbotson data.

And by ... now! my inbox would be full. "Your numbers are skewed by a few abnormal years," you'd be shouting, or "What about survivorship bias?" And you'd be right. That's the fatal flaw with all historical data: The future is not the past.

So forget the numbers
You don't need an Excel spreadsheet to prove that many of tomorrow's mega caps are small companies today. But you do need a few clues if you want to find them ahead of the crowd. History tells us we're looking for a smallish company ...

  • Run by entrepreneurial zealots with ownership stakes.
  • Free from convoluted relationships with investment banks.
  • Able to rapidly grow its sales and cash flow.

And one more thing: You want a stock that hasn't hit Wall Street's radar yet. That way, there's a decent chance you can benefit from pent-up demand when earnings and revenue pick up and the sell-side analysts finally catch on.

So, what exactly is an "entrepreneurial zealot"?
Well, how about John Rockefeller? Sounds crazy, but you can trace ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), one of the largest companies in the world, to his Standard Oil. A little too dusty for you? Fair enough. How about Larry Ellison's work at Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL) in the 1990s?

In the 1970s, a guy named Fred Smith launched FedEx (NYSE: FDX) using a college paper as his blueprint. A few years before, Robert and Bruce Toll started a construction company called Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL), now one of the nation's premier builders. You see where I'm going.

You never had to check these guys' insider holdings to know they had huge stakes in their businesses. And, thankfully, there's another one born every day -- contrary to what the naysayers and America-bashers would have you believe. That's the beauty of capitalism.

That's not to say finding them is easy, but it can be done. More than anything, we need to be patient and pick our spots. Even better, we can take a cue from my boss Tom Gardner's Motley Fool Hidden Gems method and seek out companies that have market caps of less than $2 billion that offer:

  • Solid management with big stakes in the companies
  • Great, sustainable businesses
  • Dominant positions in niche markets
  • Sterling balance sheets
  • Strong free cash flow

Just remember those five keys
In the 1990s, they led Peter Lynch disciples to a kid retailer called American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO) -- a stock that packed on more than 10 times its original value over the past decade and a half. One in a million, you say? Not exactly.

The same thing happened with Chico's FAS (NYSE: CHS), a more mature clothes hound that delivered monstrous gains to early investors. And then there's Seattle's other best, Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN), a more upscale retail multibagger.

So if you're looking for companies that will not only make it through the current recession but also have the potential to help you recoup your recent losses, start with those five keys.

Is this market wearing you out?
Honestly, I feel your pain. I underestimated the selling pressure we endured over the past year or so. And while I've enjoyed the bounce, I imagine we could see more downside. Could we even retest the March lows? It's possible, but I doubt it.

And I'm not buying the rumors that stocks are dead. I've been a buyer recently, but I've got some powder left. And I'm looking to buy more on weakness. I truly believe that these are times we'll look back on fondly. That's why I have a wish list of great small companies on hand for days like this.

You should have one, too. Here's an idea: Do what I do -- lean on the team of advisors at Hidden Gems for ideas and advice. They've never led me wrong. And right now, you can try the entire service free for a whole month.

Even better, the Hidden Gems team is putting its money where its mouth is -- having made a commitment to invest $250,000 in real money. You can get the names of nine stocks they've bought so far, plus the stock they're to buy next right now, and get in before they invest.

Best of all, you're not taking any chances. If you're not impressed at any point during your 30-day trial, I'll personally make sure you don't pay you a dime. Buffett would be proud. To learn more about this free trial offer, click here.

This article was originally published on May 10, 2005. It has been updated.

Paul Elliott does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. You can see the entire Hidden Gems scorecard, including every active and past recommendation, with your free trial. FedEx is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.