Can a (Non-US) Indie Dev Make a Living on the App Store?

August 7, 2014

Brent Simmons noticed many people in his circle stopped being full-time indie iOS developers. His blog post generated tons of discussion on the Internet. He does a good job of tracking it on his blog. If you’re an indie mobile app developer or considering to enter the field, I highly recommend you to have a look. The debate exploded after Jared Sinclair posted disappointing financial numbers of his Unread app. Jared’s been hard working, yet made only $21,000/year, or $1,750/month take-home income from Unread. That’s after tax and health insurance.

It seems those indie devs who spoke up are all in the Apple ecosystem and are from the US. Since I don’t live there I am curious how the numbers look like from global perspective. I went to the Global Rich List website and entered Jared’s number there:


Here’s what I got


Hmm, it doesn’t look bad at all. One can’t complain being in the top 3.2% richest people in the world.

I hear you say: “I am a skilled worker, my job is difficult, not everyone can write code. I deserve more.” Scrolling down the global rich list result page a bit, I see this


With all due respect to my fellow indie devs, I dare to say being a doctor, especially a doctor in a poor country, is much more difficult job than what most of us, including Jared and myself, are doing. Doctors need years of formal education. They are often held responsible for someone else’s death and life. Right now there are many people in our community who believe that you don’t need to be good at math to be a good programmer. Not being good at math is unheard of in any other engineering professions, yet we seem to get away pretty well with the lack of math skill. Our job can’t be that hard after all.

I spent my childhood in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. I’ve been living in Prague, Czech Repbulic for most of my adulthood. I am working remotely for a small Seattle startup for the last 3 years and made perhaps six, seven trips there. It’s indeed difficult to get by with $21K a year in Seattle. In Prague it’s not great but okayish. In Ha Noi it is the level of income most people including well educated ones can only dream of.

To the developers from the poor countries I would say the app store is a unique opportunity. You can dramatically improve your financial situation with very little risk and financial investment. A laptop, a smartphone and Internet connection. I bet you already have all three. You don’t have to move anywhere. Just cut down a bit the amount of time you spend on Facebook. It’s true the guys over there have better education and skills. On average. At individual level it doesn’t have to be true. You have to be hard working to compensate for some lack of skills, but that’s OK. We, the poor, are used to hardship. That’s an important competitive advantage, a fair one because you have paid dearly for it. And don’t worry, most of them can’t write code without Google and Stack Overflow anyway. Don’t be shy.

To my American developer friends: you’re probably right. The gold rush is over. One used to be able to make money by publishing farting apps on the app store. Not so any longer. It’s possbile that the money you can make as an app store indie dev is not compatible with living in expensive metro areas in the US. But this is not new. To live on Manhattan I guess one needs to be an investment banker or something similar. Cheap manufacturing jobs have been moved to China. The demise of the American programmer has been argued fiercely about for a decade. I don’t know. It seems exaggerated to me. One thing though. At first one didn’t want to do cheap manufacturing job, then suddenly it’s not possible to manufacture iPhone in the US even if you wanted to. The capability is gone. One can still work as staffers at shiny Apple store. But personally I wouldn’t be overjoyed if my children earn their living as shop assistants. Even if they were officially called Geniuses. (No insult to Apple store assistants. I appreciate all kinds of hard work. I merely want to say your job is not my dream job.)

(For completeness, I am doing well with my apps in Google Play. The numbers are somewhere in I-can’t-complain zone, much better than what Jared published.)