An idealized, three-dimensional, cloud-system resolving model is used to investigate the influence of surface enthalpy flux variations on tropical depression (TD) spinup, an early stage of tropical cyclogenesis in which the role of surface fluxes remains incompletely understood. A range of simulations supports the hypothesis that a negative radial gradient of surface enthalpy flux outside the storm center is necessary for TD spinup but can arise from multiple mechanisms. The negative radial gradient is typically created by the wind speed-dependence of surface enthalpy fluxes, consistent with some previous theories for tropical cyclone intensification. However, when surface enthalpy fluxes are prescribed to be independent of wind speed, spinup still occurs, albeit more slowly, with the negative radial gradient of surface enthalpy flux maintained by an enhanced air-sea thermodynamic disequilibrium beneath the cold core of the incipient vortex. Surface enthalpy flux variations seem more important for intensification than initial conditions. For example, a vortex forms and intensifies even from a state of rest when the center of the domain is initialized to be nearly saturated with water vapor, but this intensification is modest in amplitude and transient, lasting less than 12 hours, without interactive surface enthalpy flux. Sustained spinup on time scales longer than a day does not occur when surface enthalpy fluxes are horizontally homogeneous or constant, even when fixed at the high value of 200 W m−2. In the ensemble of simulations presented here, the vortex intensification rate scales linearly with the storm-scale surface enthalpy flux anomaly relative to the undisturbed environment.