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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.

But Amazon doesn't seem worried. The point is to grow market share and sales. Earnings and operating profit aren't the measures Bezos and company watch. What's critical to them is "long-term, sustainable growth in free cash flow."

Why? Here's the company's explanation, courtesy of its 2001 annual report: "Because a share of stock is a share of a company's future cash flows, and, as a result, cash flows more than any other single variable seem to do the best job of explaining a company's stock price over the long term."

Amazon hasn't changed this view over the years, and so far Wall Street is comfortable with that.

Still, the stock is priced within 4 percentage points of its all-time closing high of $261.68, set on Sept. 19. Its relative strength index, a measure of market momentum, is 76; above 70, a stock is considered overbought.

 All these -- and the simple fact that huge companies often struggle to find enough growth to move the needle -- suggest there are better buys in online retailing. Especially if you want the kind of growth investors have gotten from Amazon over the years.

3 candidates for the 'next Amazon'

We start by writing off Google, Wal-Mart, Target and Costco Wholesale (COST) -- all worthy names, with sizable online presences, though none approaches Amazon in size. But all are trading within 6% or so of their 52-week highs, like Amazon, and are relatively mature companies.

Here are three with better growth prospects:

EBay (EBAY). Granted, eBay isn't new, and it is large, but it's a long way from Amazon. Revenue has grown consistently since 2007. It should hit $14 billion this year and $16 billion in 2013. It has operations in 30 countries and no longer considers itself an auction site. Rather, it is a global commerce platform and payments company. About 51% of revenue comes from outside North America. 

The company barely noticed the 2008 crash. Earnings have been climbing nicely as well. A brilliant move was its acquisition of PayPal in October 2002, and the transactions business has been lucrative.

The stock is selling at 18 times earnings and 22 times forward earnings. It looks a little expensive, but not as expensive as Amazon. It also delivers more consistent earnings, which makes it a better growth prospect and the safest bet of these three.

NetSuite (N). Controlled by Oracle (ORCL) founder Larry Ellison, NetSuite offers mid-sized companies a turnkey solution to building financial and e-commerce sites. The stock, which is trading around $60, is up 47% this year and up 800% since bottoming at $6.63 during the 2008 financial crash.

The company went public in 2007. The shares have recovered strongly since the crash as the company expanded its market in building cloud-based financial and e-commerce systems. Revenue has been rising rapidly -- 20% plus annually, except in 2009, when the recession hurt results.

The downside of the company is that it still is showing losses under generally accepted accounting rules. On a non-GAAP basis, the results are better. NetSuite did beat estimates in the four most recent quarters. As noted, the stock has risen sharply this year, so there is some worry it is overpriced.

While this isn't a retailer, it helps small retailers sell niche wares. Avoiding direct competition with Amazon this way may help it become the "next Amazon" in terms of growth, at least for a long while.

Still, the best candidate for the "next Amazon" may be one you have to wait for -- it's not even public yet.

Wayfair.com is a home-goods site founded by Steve Conine and Niraj Shah, who noticed that e-commerce didn't die after the dot-com bubble burst. They slowly bought up or started some 200 sites and finally consolidated everything into Wayfair in late 2011. The company says its sites did $500 million in sales in 2011 and had a boffo weekend after Thanksgiving.

The strategy, as Fast Company noted, is to "provide great service, offer large selection, price competitively, and focus on categories not being adopted by others." The partners financed their acquisitions and expansions themselves. They didn't seek any outside investment until 2011, when they closed a deal for $165 million. The company said Monday it has raised an additional $36 million so it can expand its Joss & Main site.

While NetSuite looks strong and eBay even stronger, Wayfair is the one that could truly go from next to nothing to be the next Amazon.com. Sure, it's a long shot and you'll have to wait for an initial public offering. That idea has occurred to Shah and Conine, but it seems company isn't in any rush. For one thing, as Shah told Fortune recently, Wayfair as a brand is barely a year old.

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Maybe the company will go public, in a year or two. Of course, Amazon might buy it first.

At the time of publication, Charley Blaine did not own or control shares of any company mentioned in the article in his personal portfolio.