"The overwhelming majority of people are comfortable with consensus, but successful investors tend to have a contrarian bent."
-- Seth Klarman, founder of the Baupost Investing Group

I learned early on that I come from contrarian stock. At 10 years old, I asked my dad why he didn't buy a nice, new car like the other dads in the neighborhood -- after all, he worked hard days and weekends and could have afforded it. He looked at me and said, "Son, cars are depreciating assets."

Despite examples to the contrary, however, we as humans are hardwired not only to care what other people think, but to follow the herd in almost every scenario.

Especially your neighbors
Consider the following experiment conducted by Robert Cialdini, professor of both psychology and marketing.

He wanted to find out what would persuade people to conserve energy, so he put leaflets in people's doorways with different messages. One group received leaflets with facts about how energy conservation helps the environment, another group received information on how much money they could save, and one group received leaflets that read, "The majority of your neighbors are conserving energy." One control group received no leaflets. Later, they checked the gas meters to see who had, in fact, changed their energy consumption.

I'm sure you see where I'm going with this -- the most effective leaflet was the one telling people that their neighbors were conserving energy. As Cialdini says, people will almost always do things they know or believe other people are doing. Think about how many times you've stopped and looked up at the sky just because other people were doing it.

That's why bubbles are so devastating -- we tend to get caught up in the excitement, buying shares of Transocean (NYSE: RIG) in mid-2008 when it was trading close to record highs, right before it plunged by 72%. Of course now, trading at a really reasonable 9 times earnings and well-positioned to take advantage of a nascent recovery in offshore and deepwater drilling, the stock actually looks quite attractive. But in 2008, we just couldn't help it -- everyone else was doing it, so we bought in, too!

Far from the madding crowd
There are some great reasons to practice going against the grain -- especially when it comes to investing.

Following stocks that everyone else is following hardly gives you much of an advantage -- you're forced to compete against not only thousands of other investors, but hundreds of scrupulous Wall Street analysts.

On the other hand, tracking stocks that are typically ignored -- i.e., small-cap stocks -- allows you to find mispricing situations, and once you can identify a great company that's undervalued -- well, you've just hit a gold mine.

For example, many of your neighbors probably haven't heard of Azz (NYSE: AZZ), a small, $500 million company that manufactures and distributes electrical equipment. However, Azz is going to play a huge role in the rebuilding of America's infrastructure. According to some experts, it's going to take $1.5 trillion to get our electrical grid up to speed -- and that's just to meet today's demands. As the nation steps up its investment in smart-grid technology, Azz sits perfectly placed to take advantage of future growth -- growth that's sure to last over the long-run.

Because of its unique position in the industry, Azz caught the eye (and recommendation) of our Motley Fool Hidden Gems analysts. Azz has increased net income by an annualized 50% over the past half decade and is trading for a reasonable 14 times earnings -- our team just couldn't pass this opportunity up.

You simply can't find that type of growth from companies your neighbors have already heard of -- big name stocks like Nokia (NYSE: NOK) or Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM). Both companies have market caps over $45 billion, and they’re being followed by over 25 analysts apiece. Those stats matter -- at present, for example, Nokia is down almost 13%, and Qualcomm is down 8% since last week. Now, there's no doubt that they both reported poor earnings, but would a small cap, barely-followed company get hammered this hard? I doubt it.

Keep it in the family
To find the stock champion of the next 10 years, you'll need to avoid the herd -- and look where your neighbors aren't. That means seeking out small-cap stocks that are being ignored, and then finding the ones that have excellent growth, that return money to shareholders, and that are trading cheaply.

For example, here are some lesser-known small caps that have some of the qualities needed to see some enormous gains:


Market Cap

P/E Ratio

5-Year Annualized Revenue Growth (TTM)

Return on Equity (TTM)

China Natural Gas (Nasdaq: CHNG)

$203 million




Hi Tech Pharmacal (Nasdaq: HITK)

$283 million




Jinpan International (Nasdaq: JST)

$351 million




Data taken from Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. TTM = trailing 12 months.

Each of these companies is trading cheaply, has proven it can sustain top-line growth while returning money to shareholders, and best of all -- they're small, so there's plenty of room for growth!

I'll be honest -- not all small-cap stocks are going to be a perfect fit. But if you have the guts to pick the less popular stocks, your portfolio will surely reap some tremendous benefits.

Those are the kinds of stocks we buy for our Hidden Gems real-money portfolio -- and our picks are beating the market. If you're interested in seeing the stocks our analysts are recommending, just click here to get started.

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Jordan DiPietro owns no shares mentioned above. Jinpan International is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. Nokia is an Inside Value choice. The Fool owns shares of AZZ incorporated. The Fool has a disclosure policy whose neighbors recently complained that it walks too loudly.