Side Business Idea For Geeky College Students: Hacking iPhones

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WaPo has a story about a college student who makes $50,000 a year from jailbreaking iPhones for strangers. By opening up the operation system to tweaks, “jailbreaking” allows iPhone users to do some cool stuff like share 3G connections, switch to T-Mobile, and install non-Apple-approved apps. I can see how non-techy iPhone owners would happily pay money to enhance their iPhone, given that they are already paying $70-$100+ a month for service.

The article doesn’t provide proof or details, but with some simple reverse math, here’s how it might work. $50k a year is about $1,000 a week. If he says he can do 40 unlocks a week, that means he had to charge $25 a pop. Not bad for a cash business with zero overhead besides having an iPhone. Now, there are some risks of data loss, but I’m pretty sure that with some careful reading any college student could figure it out. There are plenty of sites that will guide you through it. In case you’re wondering, in July 2010 the courts ruled that jailbreaking was legal.

This reminds me of when I was in college, I supported my gadget desire by taking advantage of the dot-com boom and the emergence of eBay. A new start-up would offer up stuff with a “we-lose-money-but-make-it-up-in-volume” discount, and I would sell them on eBay for a profit. For example, a Palm Pilot (remember those?) might be on sale for $100, and I could sell it for $150. If I bought three, that meant I could sell two and keep one for free. If I was more motivated by actual money then (I wasn’t) I should have bought 10 or 20, and made some real money.

The main problem with this plan? Supply and demand. Just one day after this article hit, a guy is offering to jailbreak your phone for just five bucks in San Jose. I guess that’s where you’ll have to start using stuff like marketing and finding a good location to stand out. Hello real-world experience!

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  1. Tyrone Biggums says

    I know a few people that have jailbroken iPhones or iPads. One of the benefits is that you can download any paid app for free. How could this possibly be legal? Isn’t it like downloading music for free from file sharing services? If you are getting it for free, obviously the app developer is not seeing a dime.

  2. josefismael says

    The only thing that keeps me from doing this (as well as other “freelance IT” types of work) is the strong aversion to support after the fact.

    I would be more than happy spending the extra time TEACHING the customer how to help themselves (most of what we do in IT really isn’t so hard), but so often that goes unheeded or is denied from the start.

  3. i know several making a killing on this cash business. another common one is installing all kinds of nintendo Wii games on an external hard drive and essentially offering the system with hundreds of games. not legal i don’t think – but craigslist is loaded with these kinds of offers

  4. yup, i used one of those guys off craigslist. He had a nice setup.

    The business was done from his car and it took about 30 min. He charged $20 but tried to upsell, which i declined.

    He had a mac plugged into his car. The front passenger seat was like an office with various hacking tools and CLEAR wifi setup. While he was hacking my phone, he got around 20 calls. He boasted that people overseas update his ads on craigslist for him because it gets flagged down a lot. He even showed me proof. While we were chatting away, his ‘ads’ in various forms appeared on CL.

    He was a college student at a community college but had a nice beefed up Accord. I reckon he was easily making around $200 a day. He even had business cards printed.

  5. @xmasy – That mobile setup sounds really smart, because it’s all about convenience. What is there to upsell to?

  6. @Tyrone – There’s a difference between jailbreaking and pirating software. I have no idea how easy it is to steal apps, but Cydia seems to be a legit app store outside of Apple that sells millions of dollars of apps.

    @josefismael – Make it clear that there is no support. Just show them you did what you said you would. Or, charge for additional support.

    @Sunil – Yes, but the important difference here is that this is all legal. Come to think of it, I wonder why those little mall kiosks that sell iPhone cases don’t offer to do this for customers.

  7. he tried to upgrade to me version 4.2 (for $10 more) i think which he said was harder to install. Version 4.1 was the norm at that time….cant recall the details

  8. Troy Brown says

    I would be happy to pay someone to root my Sprint Samsung Epic. I know it’s not as difficult as jailbreaking but there is still some risk and I don’t care to spend hours reading up on how to do it if I can just pay someone who is reliable. How do I find someone in my area?

  9. Troy Brown says

    I just went on craigslist and searched on “root phone” and found many listings for people who will do this for about $20 so I guess it was pretty easy to find.

  10. You think the problem is that the guy was jailbreaking iPhones or the fact that he probably wasn’t paying taxes on that $50,000?

  11. Address Curb Painting says

    Oh yah, I have paid for this service before off of craigslist! So yeh… I definitely believe this business works well!

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