The Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, turned an initial bankroll of $10,000 into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate. Shelby Davis began with $50,000, and he amassed a $900 million fortune. These inspiring stories give us all hope that we'll be able to achieve our own financial dreams. But what if you don't have $50,000, or $10,000, or even $5,000 to get started?

Fear not, Fool -- you aren't doomed to penury and misery. You don't need to be a trust-fund baby to start securing your financial future. Just follow these four simple steps:

Why small caps?
Because they offer the greatest potential for market-beating returns. Institutions tend to ignore these little stocks, and analysts don't cover them. By the time anyone realizes they're there, they've already grown and appreciated in price.

To find these future giants, we'll screen for stocks with:

  • Market values less than $3 billion, to qualify as a small cap (but no micro caps)
  • An earnings surprise of 20% or more in its latest quarter
  • Long-term earnings growth potential of at least 20%

We'll filter our findings through the collective investing wisdom of the more than 145,000 professional and novice investors in our Motley Fool CAPS community. If the best and brightest CAPS players think these stocks hold potential, then we ought to take notice, too.

Here are some of the stocks this simple screen found:

Company

Market Cap

Share Price

EPS Surprise

Median Analyst 5-Year EPS Growth Estimate

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

AirTran Holdings (NYSE:AAI)

$663.4 million

$4.93

133%

37%

**

Exterran Holdings (NYSE:EXH)

$1.3 billion

$20.50

192%

25%

*****

Schweitzer-Mauduit International (NYSE:SWM)

$1.2 billion

$76.43

50%

20%

*

tw telecom (NASDAQ:TWTC)

$2.4 billion

$15.71

25%

27%

*

UAL (NASDAQ:UAUA)

$2.3 billion

$13.72

40%

41%

*

Source: Yahoo.com. NC=not calculable.

Of course, this is not a list of stocks to buy. This is a starting point for more research. We need to look more closely at these companies to see if analysts' faith in them is well-founded, but we've got the CAPS community helping us here, so let's start with its favorites.

An alternative opportunity
The airline industry might be digging out. United Airlines parent UAL significantly narrowed its loss in the latest quarter, with adjusted earnings coming in at $240 million below break-even, as a rebound in international business travel and lower costs helped moderate declines in revenue. Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) was also optimistic that revenue trends would continue in its favor, expecting them to turn positive for January, while AirTran Holdings scored a $17.1 million profit. Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) was another airline in the black for the quarter.

Airlines are keeping capacity at a premium, with United Airlines reducing its number of seats available by 3.4%, allowing it to reduce operating expenses by 20%. With total passenger traffic flat with the year-ago period and fees for services such as checked bags and meals on the rise, cargo and ancillary revenues held even at $380 million.

Investors are split on what this means for the industry, suggesting it's going to be decided on a carrier-by-carrier basis. While CAPS member boghead is unimpressed with UAL's performance because it continues to lose money, mradigan747 writes that AirTran is eating Delta's lunch.

Atlanta based Air Tran is a much better pick if you want to be long the Airline industry. Air Tran's Frequent Flyer program earns free round trip flights for customers after 8 purchased round trip flights (regardless of distance). If you take 8 round trips on Delta, you will have at minimum 8K miles, not even close to the up to 60K miles you need for a free flight. Air Tran is robbing Delta blind of customers and is tops in customer service. I fly with them every week and couldn't be more satisfied. 

Foolish final thoughts
Academic experts will tell you that individual investors have little chance of beating the stock market. They say the Warren Buffetts, Shelby Davises, and Peter Lynches are the exceptions to the rule. We at The Motley Fool don't agree. Investing is not brain surgery. Finding good, undervalued companies is not as difficult as the professionals want you to think.

It is possible to make a more comfortable retirement for yourself, even if you have little money to start with or are starting late in life. It is possible to turn $100 into $1 million. You just have to commit: Do it now, and do it regularly. No amount is too small. Let's get started. There's no time to lose!

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.