Character Labs is our
four-week sprint program for
AI founders

Since 2009, we have helped world-class AI teams solve product and GTM with our Sprint method. Through our seed fund, we invest in technical founders —including those from DeepMind, Google, Microsoft, and more — and then work hand-in-hand to help them build products that really click for customers.

Now we’re combining our biggest lessons and takeaways into Character Labs, an AI startup accelerator that’s 100% focused on product-market fit. If you want to stand out from the crowd and build a differentiated product with AI, we think you should apply for Character Labs today.

📁 Applications for Character Labs are closed. You can read the story behind the program or sign up here to get an email when we reopen applications in June.

⚡️ Applications are due February 18 for pre-seed founders to join Character Labs ⚡️

Work directly with our team

Get way more value than talks, advice, and feedback.

In Character Labs, you'll work directly with our team: Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, creators of the Design Sprint, bestselling authors of Sprint, and former design partners at GV; and Eli Blee-Goldman, our co-founder and general partner leading all investments at Character.

As investors and designers, we have worked closely with more than 200 startups, including Flatiron Health, Gusto, YouTube, Miro, and Slack, through pivotal moments in their growth.

We’ll be there the whole time, personally leading you through four weeks of hands-on sprints.

We’ll also be joined by AI experts Veda Panneershelvam, Josh Haimson, and Adam Ghobarah; customer research expert Jeanette Mellinger; and Character Labs alumni Quddus Pativada and Matt Ward.

Back-to-back sprints

Accelerate your progress toward product-market fit.

In Character Labs, you’ll rapidly test hypotheses and validate your product and go-to-market strategy in a sequence of back-to-back sprints.

1. Foundation Sprint focused on strategy and differentiation.
2. Story Sprint to prototype and test your marketing and sales.
3. Design Sprints to prototype and test your product.
4. Risk Roadmap to plan your next experiments.
5. Pitch Sprint to create a first draft of your pitch.

Through these sprints, you’ll find out whether you’re on the right track in four weeks — not the four months or more it can take to build and ship a proper MVP.

Character Labs combines everything we’ve learned from working with 250+ startups. It expands on the proven method from our book Sprint with dozens of new exercises and techniques that we haven’t shared publicly.

Get $125k for 4% equity

We invest early and work hard to over-deliver on value.

Every startup in Character Labs gets a $125,000 investment from Character in exchange for 4% equity. We make our investment on the first day of the program. It‘s not contingent on any milestones, and there are no fees to participate.

We’ve carefully designed this offer. Because of the hands-on work we do alongside you and your team, we believe it’s a better value than other accelerators, and it’s small enough to sit alongside capital from other sources with minimal dilution.

Plus, you’ll immediately become a member of the Character portfolio and have access to our network of founders, advisors, and coinvestors. We’ll work with you on fundraising, additional sprints, or whatever else you need to build on the momentum from Character Labs.

Five startups at a time

We only accept five companies into each Character Labs group. This is an elite, hands-on, high-quality experience for pre-seed founders — not a startup factory.

Focus on what matters

No pitch practice, no demo days, no fluff.

Like any good investor, we'll help you with customer introductions, hiring, and fundraising when the time is right. We know how valuable that support can be when you're building something new.

But we also know none of it matters if you don’t get the product and go-to-market right.

That’s why Character Labs is 100% focused on helping you find product-market fit, and why it’s all about doing — not talking.


Who should apply?

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Character Labs is designed for pre-seed startup founders who have identified an opportunity or market, but have not found product-market fit.

That could mean you have an early product in the market but it’s not quite working, or that you haven’t shipped your v1 yet.

Either way, you know how important it is to build the right product for the right people, and you love the idea of a focused effort to figure it out.

Character Labs is optimized for AI startups. That doesn't mean you shouldn't apply if you're not 100% focused on artificial intelligence; it just means we've made a few tweaks to the program to tailor it for founders working on AI-centric products.

If you’re not sure whether Character Labs is a good fit — apply! (Please note that we only invest in software products and software-enabled services.)

Why is Character Labs a good fit for AI startups?

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Magical things are possible with artificial intelligence, but it can be difficult to build trust and understanding with customers who don’t understand how that magic works. This is especially true when advanced AI reaches beyond the realms of research, startups, and tech optimism and into the real world.

We’ve seen these challenges firsthand, as investors and designers in healthcare, personal finance, manufacturing, and consumer apps, and more— where the amazing power of AI can be overshadowed by questions, doubts, or simple confusion.

We have led Design Sprints for successful AI products since 2009, when Jake designed Gmail’s Priority Inbox. We worked with AI teams from Flatiron Health, Digit, Orbital Insight, Phaidra, and more. Our portfolio includes startups founded by AI engineers from Google DeepMind, Microsoft, and Amazon. And we look forward to adding you to the mix!

We know how important it is to de-risk the product and go-to-market strategy for new AI advances so the technology can have its greatest possible impact on the world. In the words of Phaidra co-founder Katie Hoffman: “It doesn’t matter how good the technology is if our customers don’t understand it or trust it.”

We think it’s the perfect time for a program that helps AI founders bring their work closer to the humans they are building it for.

Plus, we’re nerds at heart, and just love being part of what’s next in technology 🤓

Do I need a team to apply?

Technically no, but ideally yes.

Character Labs is not an incubator. Our goal is to support and empower you and your team to accelerate progress toward product-market fit — not replace or stand in for your team.

We may accept solo founders but have a strong preference for teams.

Character Labs is also a great opportunity to build your team. You can use the four weeks to test out working with potential co-founders or teammates.

We recommend teams of 2–4, including people who can rapidly build scrappy prototypes and are comfortable talking to customers.

I’m outside the USA. Should I apply?

Yes! Character Labs is 100% remote, so we welcome teams who live anywhere!

However, please keep in mind that all synchronous sessions will take place on USA time, roughly 10am to 4pm CDT (that's UTC–5) on most days of the program. (See below for details.)

Also, at this time we are only able to invest in companies incorporated in the USA.

What is the application timeline?

Applications are due at 11:59pm Central Time on February 18, 2024.

During the week of February 19, we will review your application and get in touch to schedule an interview for the week of February 26.

If you’re selected for Character Labs, you’ll find out the week of March 4.

The program begins on Wednesday, March 27 and runs for approximately four weeks. (See below for more details.)

Where does Character Labs meet?

Character Labs is 100% remote. We meet on Zoom, Miro, and Slack.

What happens in Character Labs?

During Character Labs, the Character team (Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, Eli Blee-Goldman) will lead you through a sequence of sprints that’s designed specifically for early-stage startups.

March 27–29: Foundation Sprint. By identifying your strategy and differentiation upfront, you'll be more likely to design a product and marketing that "clicks" with customers

April 1–5: Story Sprint. Since most customers see your "story" before they see your product, you should start there — if you don't get the marketing and sales right, the product doesn't matter

April 8–12: Design Sprint. Waiting until you have an MVP to test your ideas is too long; do it now by building a realistic prototype and testing it with real customers.

April 15–18: Design Sprint. Iterate on your prototype from the first sprint, or start over, and test again with a fresh batch of target customers.

April 19: Risk Roadmap. Building something new is all about navigating the unknown. Make a Risk Roadmap so you know exactly what you need to validate in order to keep moving forward.

April 22–23: Pitch Sprint. Synthesize your work in Character Labs and pitch it to other founders in the program. Decide what to do next and celebrate all that you've accomplished!

What happens after Character Labs?

By the end of your four weeks in Character Labs, we hope you’ll have enough conviction and confidence to build your product and bring it to market. (Or not! If you reach a dead end, it’s better to find out quickly than after you’ve launched.)

We also hope you’ll continue to use the Sprint method. You may not need the intensity of the four-week Character Labs, but we know the process is valuable any time you’re starting a new project or facing a high-stakes decision.

Remember, you’ll be a full member of the Character portfolio and have access to our network of founders, advisors, and coinvestors. We’ll work with you on fundraising, additional sprints, or whatever else you need to build on the momentum from Character Labs.

How is this different than a “normal” Character investment?

In addition to our Labs program, Character invests $1–2M into the seed rounds of companies who have products in the market and growing customer adoption. We run bespoke sprints with our portfolio, spending a week or more working hand-in-hand with one company at a time.

With Character Labs, we invest $125k into pre-seed startups who have not yet found product-market fit. We run sprints with these teams as well, in a group format where five companies are working in parallel with direct support from our team.

Does this replace an accelerator or pre-seed round?

Not necessarily.

We designed the program to complement other sources of capital or startup support. At only 4% equity, your dilution is minimal relative to the value you‘ll receive in the 4-week sprint program. We're confident we'll increase your odds of success by way more than 4%!

Previous Character Labs founders have raised a pre-seed round before joining the program. Others incorporated for Character Labs, and we were their first investors. Many have gone on to raise pre-seed or seed rounds within the months following the program, or participated in other elite accelerators.

Will you invest in my next round?

Yes. We commit to investing at least our pro rata share in your next round of financing after Character Labs.

Now, some fine print: It needs to be a proper round of VC financing, with a price or cap set by an outside lead investor. And we can't guarantee we'll invest more than $1.875M in that round. (That's not to say we won't try; it's simply our maximum guaranteed pro rata investment in your next round of financing after Character Labs.)

What if Character Labs isn’t right for me?

We’d love to hear from you anyway! We invest flexibly across the spectrum of seed stage, with a maximum check size of $2 million. Please get in touch via our website.

Screenshot of Character Labs participants having a discussion on Zoom with a screenshot of a Miro board.Screenshot of a Miro board showing a Design Sprint from Character Labs.Screenshot of a Miro board showing the "home base" with all of the teams in Character Labs.
Screenshot of Slack with a discussion about Character Labs.

Character Labs is our
four-week sprint program for AI founders

📁 Applications for Character Labs are closed. You can read the story behind the program or sign up here to get an email when we reopen applications in June.