The Thiel Fellowship Application: A How-To

I get asked a lot how to apply for the Thiel Fellowship and it usually boils down to two questions:

  1. Do I need to have an idea?
  2. What are they looking for in their applicants?

The first one is pretty simple to answer and I’ll get it out of the way before getting into the nitty gritty of the rolling application cycle.

Do I need to have an idea?

The short answer is yes, but not in the way that you think. To completely understand what I mean by that, I’ll fill you in a bit on my journey.

I came into the Fellowship working on a distributed computing concept, Hyv. About 2 months in I realized that it was not going to be viable in the current market and wanted to stop working on it. I called up the directors and told them about my decision and asked how it would affect my Fellowship. They responded with:

“Sounds good. Just let us know what you’re working on next and keep us posted!”

I spent about a month searching for my next idea and ended up cofounding Chrg, which also didn’t end up working out. I repeated my declaration of “failure” and then moved on to the next thing. My Fellowship was never called into question because I have always kept busy, always strived to grow, and always try to work on cool stuff.

The Fellowship is, first and foremost, an alternative to education allowing you to expedite your growth by giving you the freedom to pursue your greatest ventures and ideas during your most intellectually productive years. It’s proving that higher education isn’t the only answer (and isn’t even nearly the best option) for people who are dedicated to bettering themselves and generating a difference in the world, an ecosystem, or in an idea. If you spend 2 years and never raise money, never exit, never build a team, but have grown more than you would have in traditional education, it was a success.

This means that the idea is not the focus of your Fellowship. It is you and your journey. So when you apply for the Fellowship understand that your idea is a means for you to describe your passion, show your ability to execute, and display your determination to be a mover and shaker in your field of interest. You need an idea to explain all of these things about yourself, but the idea is by no means the main reason you get the Fellowship.

What are they looking for in their applicants?

This is a very broad section and I’ll use the application itself as a guideline for answering it.

Note that the format uses “/”, not “-”. Everyone seems to make that mistake. Don’t be one of these people.

The date of birth is the quick first test because while the age limit in order be eligible for a Fellowship is under 23, young founders should still apply as there are Summits to come to and potential connections you can make within the Thiel Fellowship network! I hope this question remains pretty self-explanatory.

This is the big question. This is your hook. This is where Fellowships happen.

This is your opportunity to tell the Fellowship what you’re interested in, how you’re going about working on it, and your progress. There are two mistakes you can make filling out this question:

“I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur so I’m looking for companies to work on.”

This is basically you saying I’m not interesting in having a boss and lots of money excites me. Mark Zuckerberg did not build Facebook because he wanted to be an entrepreneur. He built it because he wanted to make an amazing online social network. His work made him an entrepreneur. Steve Jobs did not dream of being an entrepreneur. He dreamed of putting beautiful yet complex technology into the hands of everyday consumers. His work made him an entrepreneur.

Go out and do great things because you’re driven to do those great things and see the outcomes you can create. Don’t do them because “entrepreneurship” has always been calling your name.

“I’m really interested in getting humans to Mars (or insert other very ambitious goal here). I’ve loved space since I was 5 and have made no progress to actually move in the direction of making that happen because I don’t know where to start.”

Progress on execution is everything. Anyone can say they want to go to Mars, but creating actionable plans and then tangibly delivering on those plans takes real effort and shows true value.

Don’t just talk about what you want to do. Show what you’ve done and what you’re going to do. Explain your plans and prove that you’re going to make them happen. No one is an expert when they’re born. Everyone starts somewhere.

This leads right into the next piece of answering this question which is updating your application. One data point on your thoughts and interests from January of 2016 isn’t enough to give the Fellowship an idea of your abilities and level of passion. Whenever something happens, or maybe monthly, update that application! Set goals for yourself and then make them happen. They want to see that you’re actively pursuing your interests and endeavors.

If you’re building a Tinder for Dog Food (ChowSwipe anyone?) app and you apply with your idea and you’re looking to have a prototype within the next month, say that! Then, one month later, either talk about your success and next goals in grabbing your first 100 dogs on your platform or what went wrong and how you’re going to fix your mistakes and learn from them. Give the Fellowship data points to work with in order to show that you’re serious about your work.

Pretty simple, but it adds some legitimacy if you have something. If you don’t, don’t just throw together a landing page for this reason. Use your time wisely. It’s your most valuable resource. Working on some awesome projects and not having time to put together a landing page is by no means unheard of. Some projects don’t call for them so don’t do the unnecessary.

Same goes for this one.

Again, don’t create materials if you don’t have them/need to, but this is a great place to add renderings of your hardware, maybe a bit of extra info that couldn’t come across in the 500 word “What are you working on now,” or anything of that sort. Use this at your own discretion, but be concise.

Be creative here. This is a place to showcase some personality, a great story, or just something downright impressive. Differentiate yourself and especially paint a picture of determination and growth. Make it something difficult that you worked past or something that gives you character, but not something bland in between.

A helpful data point. Nothing crazy in these two questions.

And there you have it. The entire application summed up. If this was too long, here’s your tl;dr:

  1. Show your ability to execute through your idea.
  2. Update. Update. Update. Give the Fellowship more data points.
  3. Differentiate yourself. Every Fellow has a crazy story. Tell them your crazy story.

Finally, remember that the application is rolling! There’s no deadline to apply. Do it at your own pace because ideas don’t only happen at certain times of the year.

If you have any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter and good luck!

-Alex