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Gallery owner Shelley Collins Trbuhovich knew it was time to take the next step. Photo: Supplied

HIRING extra staff to extend a thriving small business can raise some critical questions. Is it the right time to hire? Who can you trust? And can you afford them?

For gallery owner Shelley Collins Trbuhovich, taking the next step was a necessity. For five years her vintage poster art business in Melbourne, Galerie Montmartre, had successfully traded online.

Together with former partner Stephan Trbuhovich, (who remains her business partner) the pair sourced original vintage advertising posters, selling them to online buyers and sometimes taking their collections to art fairs.

But they were running out of room in their warehouse-cum-showroom and knew something had to change.

''The business began to grow and eventually, we thought, 'Art needs to be seen','' Ms Collins Trbuhovich said.

''So we made the decision to open a retail space.''

The top priority was to assess the company's financials. ''The very first thing we did was crunch the numbers,'' Ms Collins Trbuhovich said.

''We looked at how much money was coming in, how much our product was costing, basically how much was needed to run the business.''

Executive coach Kate James, director of Total Balance Group, said knowing the right time to develop a small business into a medium or large business was often the hardest decision.

''It's a really difficult one and it's one of the biggest conundrums small businesses face,'' she said.

''But you know you need extra staff when you're not coping with the volume of work coming in.

''Once you're doing over 50 hours a week, you've really got to have alarm bells ringing. When you're doing that amount of work every week, you're not going to be at your best.''

Before rushing off to hire a dozen staff, or lease a brand new office or a fleet of company cars, it pays to do your homework.

Getting a grasp on the accounts and setting some realistic financial goals was a good start for any business looking to expand, Ms James recommended.

''You have to do some cash-flow projections and say, maybe in six months' time, you might be doing better,'' she said.

''And that means you may go backwards before going forwards.''

Ms Collins Trbuhovich experienced this when she first opened her gallery and hired two staff members.

''For a while there I didn't draw a wage,'' she said. ''We lived on credit cards, knowing it was a short-term thing.''

But the business soon started to make money, allowing Ms Collins Trbuhovich to hire another staff member.

In total, she hired a shop manager (an art curator with a penchant for poster art who had regularly shopped at the online gallery), a shop assistant and a bookkeeper.

By hiring staff and outsourcing tasks she did not enjoy, particularly bookkeeping, Ms Collins Trbuhovich said, she had extra time to connect with her customers.

''I knew the bookkeeper would free me up for about five hours a week and I knew that time was just as important as the finances,'' she said.

Rather than a formal recruitment process, Ms Collins Trbuhovich said she used her intuition when hiring staff, most of whom she knew beforehand.

But she did insist on a three-month trial period for each new worker before employing them permanently.

Using word-of-mouth recommendations is a common method of selecting future employees, particularly among business owners who are members of networking groups such as micro business community Flying Solo.

Recruitment companies can also put small business owners in touch with suitable staff, but they do charge a fee.

In the early days of any business expansion, Ms James suggested hiring staff on a casual or temporary basis.

This allowed business owners to judge whether staff were needed for part-time or full-time roles, and also if they were the right fit for the business.

Importantly, don't skimp on staff numbers. ''Don't get one employee to wear four different hats,'' Ms James said. ''It might be more costly, but you probably need a different staff member for each role.''

Guiding her business through a busy growth period has rewarded Ms Collins Trbuhovich. She said the gallery had reached a comfortable point where there was room for more development, thanks largely to the team of staff behind her.

''I'm a firm believer in 'if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys','' she said. ''Having a good team is the best investment I made. They are the business's best assets.''