Flash idea ... Leio Ohshima McLaren, 13, was inspired to create Phonic Buddies after helping his cousin learn to read. Photo: Michelle Smith
Matthew Jones seems like a typical Aussie teenager. He enjoys hanging out with friends, is a little worried about his HSC exams later this year and has a part-time job at Woolworths as a self-described ''checkout chick''.
However, the savvy 17-year-old from Lake Cathie, on the NSW north coast, is also one of a growing number of ''bedroom coders'' who are developing mobile apps before they even finish high school.
Jones taught himself how to program by reading tutorials on the internet when he was 14. Within two years, he was selling a stock-tracking app called ShareWatch on the Apple App Store and had started his own app development business.
''I always thought if I could just have one great idea, I could make a bit of money off it,'' Jones says.
Rather than take all the coding on himself - a task he says would have been challenging, given his school commitments and lack of experience - he hired a company in India through the Freelancer job-outsourcing site to do most of the development work.
Sales of the app have been steady, averaging between 10 and 15 downloads a day, and Jones is pragmatic about his chances of making it big.
''ShareWatch wasn't an overnight success and that wasn't ever the plan,'' he says. ''I'm hoping for it to break even within the first year and I definitely think it will, especially with the updates that are coming out in the next four or five months.''
A family affair
Leio Ohshima McLaren, 13, got his start even earlier than Jones. After helping his younger cousin, Ambar, with her reading, he had the idea of making a flashcard app that sounded out letters phonetically when the user tapped on them. And so Phonic Buddies was born.
''She was really struggling with learning her single sounds, and I found that tapping the sound on a card seemed to help,'' he says. ''She would then draw faces on the letters so they looked more exciting.'' Like Jones, McLaren is completely self-taught using video tutorials on YouTube and Lynda.com, and reading discussion forums.
He did all of the graphics and programming for Phonic Buddies himself and his family helped with the rest.
''You can hear my sister, Gracie, say the sounds throughout the app, and my brother, Jasper, did the background music,'' he says. ''The only money I had to spend was $100 to get the Apple Developer account, and my parents actually got that for me for my birthday.''
McLaren's ambitions go further than helping iPad-equipped youngsters learn how to read. Out of the money he makes from the app, 20 per cent goes to the charity 100% Hope, a non-profit organisation run by one of his teachers on the Gold Coast. It is dedicated to caring for orphaned children in Africa.
School of hard knocks
Max Chuquimia-Borrell is no stranger to app development. With six apps in the App Store already, the busy 17-year-old admits to an obsession with computer programming, even though his first few efforts haven't yielded much in the way of income.
''It's quite hard to make money here, even if I was selling a lot of copies,'' he says.
''Apple takes 30 per cent of what I earn, and I have to pay $99 [a year] to be able to upload to the App Store. And, when I was getting my first pay cheque, I realised I had to pay 15 per cent tax on that because I'm American. So I ended up with $30 in the first year-and-a-half.''
Chuquimia-Borrell's two most popular apps are free: the Virtual Theremin, which mimics the electronic musical instrument; and cRandomSort. He has also written a paid game app, Tank Fishing, and a couple that weren't accepted into the App Store.
One of them, Shattercam, tricks a user into thinking they've broken the iPhone's screen and takes a picture of their reaction. Apple rejected it on the grounds that it misled people into thinking their screen was cracked.
''That was disappointing. I spent a lot of time on that but I can't put it out,'' he says.
Despite the setbacks, the Sydney-based teenager says his app development experience has put him in good stead for the future.
''I love programming, so I will continue with it,'' he says. ''My HSC major work is an app that I am going to release next year, and I'm definitely going to uni, where I'll either do application software or some form of post-production for movies or animation.''
Our trio's tips for young entrepreneurs
''If you want people to buy your product, then you need to have enough time put aside for it so you can make a quality product. Otherwise, what's the point of doing it?''
Matthew Jones, 17
''I love this quote from Taras Brown, the mentor and coach of Kevin Durant, the basketball player: 'Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.' I really try to remember that quote in everything I do.''
Leio Ohshima McLaren, 13
''It may sound generic, but never give up, because there's always a way to do something, even if it's not documented. Just go away, do something else and come back to it, and you'll figure it out.''
Max Chuquimia-Borrell, 17