Indie Developer Reveals How Hard it is to Make a Living as an App Developer

Jared Sinclair

Being a writer in the iOS industry, I meet a lot of indie app developers. I can tell from correspondences with these hard-working men and women that creating an app or game, for at least a period of time, is their life and their passion. Many developers put their friendships on hold and families in the backseat. All of the sleepless nights pay of on one single day, the launch day.

If an app doesn’t get picked up by the tech world, if popular blogs don’t write about it, or even worse, if they write a bad review, all of the hard work, time, and effort that an app developer put into his dream will be tossed aside, along with thousands of crap apps that don’t get any recognition, either.

App developer Jared Sinclair, creator of Unread, recently wrote a personal and telling blog post about the difficulties independent developers face when trying to actually make a life for themselves in the mobile app market. In it, he details the obstacles he faced in marketing, the unstable profit margin that peaks within the first five days, and the overall cost versus profit of creating a single app over a year’s time.

Not many developers will reveal how much money their app has made. It tends to be a sore subject, or at least a private matter, to most. Whenever I’ve asked a developer how well an app is performing in the App Store, the standard response is, “It is not our policy to give out sales figures,” or something similar.

Sinclair’s article is revealing and eye-opening. He lets us in on the secret world of profit, market strategy, and whether building an app is worth the effort.

When Sinclair decided to build a new RSS reading app, he buckled down and focused on getting it ready as quickly as possible without compromising quality. This meant spending 60 to 80 hours per week between July of 2013 and February of 2014 when Unread first launched in the App store.

From his description, Sinclair went through all of the correct channels to get his app properly marketed. It was reviewed by prominent writers in the tech world and found its way onto many tweets during its launch. By the second week, it was one of the App Store’s featured apps.

Jaraed Sinclair app profit graph

According to his own data, Unread made nearly half of the entire life of its profits within the first five days of the launch and, although still making money, is not making more than an average of $2,000 per month.

The app saw minor spikes in sales with each major update, the first coming two months after the launch and the second four months after the launch.

Sinclair ran the numbers of profit from Unread against self-employment taxes and health care premiums and determined that his 60 to 80 hours of work per week is making him approximately $1,750 per month. That comes to about $7.30 per hour, at the most (based on a 60-hour workweek). If he is lucky, he is making federal minimum wages.

Sinclair goes on to explain that he is not breaking down the numbers in order to get you to feel bad for him. He is offering advice from the benefit of hindsight to those looking to enter the independent app development world.

He notes that paid-up-front apps are not sustainable and if you wish to keep making a profit on your work, you should figure out a way to make revenue from other sources, like in-app purchases or recurring subscriptions. For those freemium haters, this is why developers choose the free-to-play model over a paid download model.

Based on the performance of Unread, paid-up-front apps must make a huge splash when they launch if they are to get noticed at all. Otherwise, they will disappear into obscurity like so many others.

Sinclair recommends seeking out coverage from influential bloggers instead of relying on the App Store feature spotlight to drive sales. He experienced both and found that word-of-mouth got him significantly more sales than Apple’s spotlight ever did.

If you are lucky enough to get wide coverage during the launch of your app, don’t put it on sale. Sinclair noted that, after launching Unread at a discounted price, he lost a potential $16,000 since most of the downloads took place within the first week, which is when his app was at its lowest price.

“I conclude from all this that anyone who wants to make a satisfying living as an independent app developer should seriously consider only building apps based on sustainable revenue models,” writes Sinclair. “Furthermore, I have grave doubts that any solo developer would have the capacity to ship and maintain either kind of business working alone.”

He recommends going in on a business partnership with other independent developers in order to pool resources and have a better chance at marketing strategy.

Based on the experience that Sinclair spoke of, would you risk it all to become an independent app developer? Are you already one and have a different story to tell?


About Lory: Writer of all things app related, traveler of the space-time continuum, baker of really great cookies. Follow me @appaholik