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Amazon.com is exactly the kind of company everyone wishes they'd invested in. But they wanted to invest 16 years ago.

That's when Jeff Bezo's little Internet startup hit the market with $15.7 million in annual revenue and an $18 share price. If you'd bought 100 shares of Amazon.com (AMZN) in its initial offering, your investment would have grown to 1,200 shares (after three splits) and $303,600, a gain of 16,766%. Founder Bezos' stake is worth about $22 billion.

Skeptics abounded back then, so forgive yourself if you missed out. But you had other chances. If you'd bought a 100-share lot when the stock hit $5.83 in October 2001, you'd be up 4,240%. If you had bought on Nov. 20, 2008, during the financial crash, when shares bottomed at $34.68, you'd be up 630%; the Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX), by comparison, is up about 88%.

Today, however, may not be as good a time to buy the stock. The shares are up 46% in 2012, eighth best among stocks in the Nasdaq 100 Index ($NDX) and 41st among S&P 500 stocks. Apple (AAPL) is up 32%, with Google (GOOG) up just 6%. They look pricey by market standards.

Which begs the question: Is the "next Amazon" out there waiting, a company that's still small and cheap with the same growth potential over the next 16 years? I've found three: eBay (EBAY), NetSuite (N) and another that isn't on the market yet but may be worth the wait. Here's how they stack up.

Charley Blaine

Charley Blaine

Why Amazon works

To find the next Amazon, it helps to ask why Amazon works so well. For one, it's by far the world's largest online retailer. In 2011, it was the 15th-largest U.S. retailer overall and among the top 25 largest retailers in the world, according to Stores magazine.

Wall Street believes Amazon.com will generate sales of $62.1 billion this year, up 29% from 2011's $48.1 billion and greater than the revenue of Best Buy (BBY) or Lowe's (LOW). Its 2013 sales may top $79 billion and beat Target (TGT) and Home Depot (HD).

But Amazon has two things going for it beyond size.

First, it has emerged as the 21st-century iteration of Sears Roebuck & Co. If you don't want to run around and do a lot of shopping, you can do it from Amazon, just like families used to order from a Sears catalog. And your cousin in Boise, Idaho, or Mobile, Ala., will feel the same excitement that people felt years ago when a Sears parcel arrived.

Amazon also offers consumers price discovery. Want to buy a baby stroller? Start at Amazon. Need to price a computer? Start at Amazon. Baird Equity Research recently said 53% of shoppers would begin their holiday shopping by cruising Amazon. This puts enormous pressure on competitors large and small. A Washington state quilt shop stopped selling quilting books because it realized customers would see a book they liked -- and buy it on Amazon.

This begs the question of whether any company can compete directly with Amazon.com. The closest competitors may be Google, Target, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) and eBay.

I like the last of these, for reasons I'll get to shortly But in fact, smaller, niche companies may be the place to find the "next Amazon" -- which itself started as a niche player.

Amazon.com's success began with books and compact discs -- and Bezos' recognition of the power of the Internet. His company offered consumers a convenient way to get the latest bestseller or hot new CD at a discounted price. You chose the item, plugged in a credit card number and your item appeared a few days later.

As the company grew, it started fulfilling orders from an expanding network of highly sophisticated warehouses scattered around the country and world. It is now also the biggest online retailer in the United Kingdom, and 44% of its revenue comes from outside North America.

These days, you can buy iPads and iPhones, jeans, NBA jerseys, video games, wine, lawn mowers and composting bins on Amazon.com, along with its big family of Kindle e-readers and tablet computers. Oh, yes, books and music are still there.

"Where Apple used iTunes to sell iPods, Amazon uses its tablets to sell everything else in the world," The Economist noted recently.

A wild and crazy P/E ratio

Amazon today has critics -- and they're loud. They start by noting Amazon's supermarket-like profit margins and wonder how the thin profits translate into a trailing 12-month price-earnings ratio of 3,150; its forward price-earnings ratio is 140. In real-world terms, those numbers say "very pricey."

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They also note that Amazon doesn't have a big holding of cash: $5.24 billion in cash and marketable securities at the end of the third quarter. Google had $44.6 billion in cash and marketable securities; Apple had $29 billion.

Amazon issued fourth-quarter guidance that was below Street estimates.