The unexpected complement rocks! I don't know about getting it, but giving someone an unexpected complement sure is fun. Two examples:
"We just had our IPO [a few months ago]." Explains entrepreneur in a dull repetitive tone.
"Congratulations!" I reply with more enthusiasm than he has seen all weekend. The deal is done. I have his full attention. He invites me to come hang out with him (ice climbing in that case) the next day with a few of the other people at the gathering. Networking at it's finest.
"[My first novel] was released [a few months ago]." Explains first time published author in outwardly unenthused but secretly overjoyed tone.
"Congratulations!" I reply with excitement at the prospect of meeting someone who went through the traditional publishing ringer and succeeded. His attention is now on me. Time to ask the questions.
Why did I react in both cases with more admiration and excitement than any of my peers in those situations? Because I understand how hard it is and how long it takes. I realize that when it comes to the entrepreneurial hierarchy I am at the very bottom. Perhaps another reason I do not have an engineering job yet, I am simply not as skilled at selling myself.
In the first case, the person in question started a company in the outdoor industry, specifically the ice climbing industry. If there is any competitive industry ice climbing is it. There is a high barrier to entry, the market is small, and somewhat saturated. The profit margins are low and the top dogs are all in cahoots, albeit still competitive and secretive, but friends none the less. In other words, getting to the point where he was standing there selling his product was a huge accomplishment.
In the second case, a professor at a large university, who only in the last few years finished his Ph. D. was more excited to talk about his fiction novel than his work. After inquiring into his graduate school experience he confirmed what I expected: graduate school is not easy. It is stressful and requires thousands of hours. His novel was, in part, a reaction to the stress of graduate school. His writing was a way to relieve stress. Besides all of that, he was published. There is a huge difference between writing something and getting it published. It is a long process typically including a lot of rejection. With much "art" name accounts for most of the value. So getting the first book published, painting sold, line of clothing sold, album produced, even job landed I guess, is a challenge.
My point being, acknowledging the hard work that someone has put in to succeed goes a long way toward generating a sincere conversation about how they did it. To me it is valuable to see how people get to where they are. I am really good at learning. Perhaps it is my best skill... I figure that if I learn enough I will be able to replicate some form of their successes. What I have learned so far: hard work is the most important. Money, support, networking, previous notoriety, credentials, ideas, personality, ethics, and coffee usually play a role too.
So I say, congratulations on your successes!