From $5/hour Job on Upwork to My Million Dollar Cross-border Consulting Business

I had been working on upwork since 2011, starting from $5/hour job as my entry strategy, and now I am ranking among the very few top earners from China.

In the past 5 years. I was invited to more than 10 countries, including USA, France, Belgium, Mexico, Thailand, for business travels and it is amazing and I really enjoyed working in this way,


After I earned around $100,000 from Upwork, my own consulting business is established and I am not dependent on freelancers’ marketplace.

From time to time I can still get pocket money for some interesting projects from marketplaces like Upwork.

I got many interviews from website, magazines, companies when more people in China knew my stories.

I was also invited to Zhihu, the Largest Chinese Knowledge Sharing Platform, yes, similar to Quora, to run a column on Freelancers and Startups.

Last November, I was invited to share my insights into the freelance business and advice for Chinese cross-border freelancers on Road of Chinese Freelancers: Online Roundtable Meeting at Zhihu.

My First Job on Upwork

It took me years to get my first job upwork.

I am not kidding.

First, it is quite difficult for non-English speakers to understand the game rules.

Second, I also doubt whether it could be a goldmine in freelancers’ market place while zhubajie, China’s biggest freelancers’ marketplace gave me very poor impression since most people can not earn a decent living from it.

After I registered my accounts on odesk/elance/freelancer etc. I set my hourly rate to be USD30 in the very beginning, sent some proposals, there were some replies, but the competition was so fierce and I could not get any job.

I don’t think I have very special skills at that time, so it was quite hard to persuade clients to click the “hire” button.

I am starting on sending proposals to English-Chinese translation jobs and website design jobs.

My competitors are everywhere, especially from India, Philippines.

It is ridiculous for an Indian guy to take English-Chinese translation jobs from western clients at a low price and then outsource to a Chinese freelance translator at an even lower price.

I don’t want to play such games.

But I really want to know how those successful freelancers can earn so much.

I changed my mind.

First I should learn how it works. Then I can make a living from it.

I chose the most simple and easy strategy

Lower my price!!!

My first job on odesk, I just took this snapshot from upwork this morning to write this part.

Yes, I started the job from USD5/hour from a German client.

It was really a very happy experience since it works for me for the first week when I adopted the new strategy.

It gave me great confidence and I was willing to devote more time on odesk.

Second Job, Third, and More… and My Hourly Rate Increases

When you got the first job, you are among the top10%

About 90% of upwork freelancers never earned a penny from the platform.

You are truly started from this moment.

It is happy to see my second job coming in, and third, and more jobs.

And I set a pricing strategy for myself.

Increase your hourly rate every month, if not every week.

And this is what I did, exactly.

I charged USD20/hour from Nov. 2011.

I charged USD35/hour from the end of 2012.

I charged USD55/hour from Mar. 2014.

Now I set the price to be USD300/hour.

Planning My Consulting Business

When your hourly rate increases, you can work less and earn more if you balance the work and life.

Before you can lead a decent freelancing life.

It is imperative to use your brain to think and plan in the early stage.

I started to build my own Consulting business from Day One when I got my first job on upwork.

It seems very promising since we can see so many potential clients out there.

I know it is a bouncy bumpy road, but it is worth trying.

I built a website based on WordPress and started writing blogs first.

Initial Questions

Every day I am asking myself the following questions.

  • What are their problems to solve?
  • Why do they have these problems?
  • How can I help them?
  • What should I prepare?
  • How to persuade them to trust me?
  • What are the fun parts?

Research & Learn, Not Just Work

To be honest, it is quite busy when I started accepting more and more jobs from upwork.

When you are charging the hourly rate at about USD25–35/hour, an affordable rate for many clients, you don’t need to worry too many new jobs if you have an established profile.

  • Make an attractive profile

Make your profile attractive to potential clients.

List your successful cases you are proud of.

Make your profile easy to read.

  • Think as your Customers

You can win the heart of the customer when you think in their way.

Elaborate your skills and how you solve problems of others.

  • Standing out from the Crowd

Remember, only 10% freelancers got their jobs on marketplaces.

Study those successful ones and average ones, compare the differences.

Improve your profile all the time, and ask people to read and get their feedback.

  • Try to get your first job as soon as possible

Only when you get your first job, you can start your real journey.

Be serious with every proposal you sent for the first job.

You can tell them your situation and even consider to give some discount.

Even if it is a simple job, it is a good start.


Tips to Be Better

When you get more and more jobs.

Think how you can make better, here are some useful tips

  • Never Stop Learning, Find Your Potential

Try different possibilities and meet with different clients.

Accept challenges.

You can learn a lot from the real work, even something you had never tried before.

Find the most needed skills and learn them.

  • Find your niche market

After various trials and tests, you will find what you would love to work on, and where is your market.

  • Craft your English writing

Most freelance work needs remote communication.

Both English writing and speaking skills are very important, especially writing.

Learning how to make your English writing persuasive.

Write better proposals, profiles, emails, reports, message communications, etc.

It is not an easy job, but worth your time.

Your persuasive words are your weapons and your best salesman.

Actually, I am also helping my overseas clients in Chinese copywriting: 10 Fundamental Rules For Writing Killer Chinese Web Copy, and helping Chinese customers to make better English web copies.


Build Your Personal Brand

  • Use your real name

I don’t understand why some freelancers prefer uploading fake pictures to pretend as an attractive girl to win jobs.

It is not a dating business, but building your real startup business.

My advice is to use your real name with professional real pictures.

Don’t use cartoons, don’t use nicknames.

Trust is the top issue when talking about the business. Only when people trust you, they will hire.

  • Testimonials

Good testimonials are your best advertisements.

Be sure to win good ratings and recommendations.

I admit, not all clients are good, but most clients are kind and will give true opinions.

Build your solid online reputation and people will come for you.

  • Share your experiences and expertise

Don’t hide your expertise, write them down and share them.

It is awesome to know more friends and get more business opportunities after I began writing my blogs (both English and Chinese), attending conferences and roundtable meetings, accepting interviews and even writing eBooks and China business guides etc.


Running My Own Consulting Business

I’d say I gained many experiences from freelance marketplaces and it means like my startup boot camp.

I polished my writing and speaking skills, realized my potentials and found my own niche markets which I love.

  • Improve My Writing & Speaking

I improved my English through daily use.

I don’t need to pay a single penny to attend classes.

Speaking English over the phone or face to face meeting needs confidence for non-native English speakers.

We can solve it through working in English.

It also helps my Chinese Writing and Speaking.

Now I write every day and it becomes a habit.

  • My Potential

I found many interesting jobs and learned a lot.

I met up with many kind clients and experienced business consultants.

Working together with these smart guys also help you understand the essence of business.

I know I can do many things which I didn’t know before.

  • My Own Niche Markets

China market is so lucrative that more and more overseas companies are planning their China market entry.

However, many small to medium businesses and startups found it quite difficult to choose the right niche markets in China and could not make a suitable strategy facing the cultural and language barriers.

There are some but not many cross-border consulting firms working in this area.

And this is my chance.


  • My 9-Category China Market Entry Services

Now I am offering 9 categories of services to them after a complete analysis of my previous successful projects.

1. China Strategic Consulting

Help clients to develop optimal solutions for their China market entry and growth strategy.

2. Business Development & Sales Solutions

A big challenge for overseas companies in China is the implementation and localization, esp. in the early stage.

I provide business development service for the clients to do the initial big account sales and find potential longterm partners.

I also started a China Sales Starter (CSS) program to help overseas clients to have a quick solution to establish their local Sales team.

My clients can also get China Virtual Assistants to handle basic administrative, customer service, website management, writing and online marketing, trade & sourcing, and sales & research services.

 3. Chinese Content Marketing

Help Customers build their authority with right Chinese content through online reputation managementWeChat marketing, Chinese copywriting, China social media marketing and email marketing.

Customers place Chinese translation orders at and they find it quite easy to operate.

4. Get a Chinese Name
Get an exceptional Chinese Name for IndividualsCompany, Brand, or Products.

5. China Digital Marketing

Many customers are looking for Baidu PPC and Chinese SEO services too.

6. China eCommerce

7. Trade Service

8. China Corporate Service

9. Creative Design


Write Useful eBooks, Guides and Tips for My Customers

I am encouraged to share some stories, guides, and tips to my clients and they enjoyed the reading.

Coaching New Freelancers and Startups

In May, 2017, I started Chao Startup Club, a paid membership Q&A Community under my own name, focusing on startup and freelancing topics.

The idea of Chao Startup Club was inspired by a coder, who planned to start up his own business in the coming year.

I was asked to coach new freelancers and startups to start their own business with my experience.

Chao Startup Club: I Got 9 Chinese Paid Members in the First 24 Hours - Sinostep

My Club Member: From USD10/hour to USD32/hour at UpWork within 3 weeks.

Within only three weeks, I answered about 60 questions and successfully helped a club member win 2 new projects and increased her hourly rate from USD10/hour to USD32/hour at UpWork.

Be Confident and Start Your Smart Working Now!

Cheng Chao

Senior Partner

SinoStep - China Market Entry Strategy and Implementation Expert

2 thoughts on “From $5/hour Job on Upwork to My Million Dollar Cross-border Consulting Business”

Leave a Comment

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top