Setting up an online unconference

We've settled into a routine with the Friends of Good Software Conference. We run a whole-day unconference on two Saturdays per year, in March and September. Plus we've got an hour-and-a-half lean coffee on two weekday afternoons per year, in June and December. We've got participants who can only come on the weekend, or only come on a weekday, or can only come in a Americas-friendly time zone.

We've continued to run it as an online event even as COVID deniers venture out into the world because our community is so global. My fellow organizers and I are busy enough that it would be difficult to run events more often. We've been using (mostly) the same technology for all of the events: Welo, Miro, Slack, and MailerLite.


We've been using Welo as our video-conferencing tool. One of the previous organizers discovered the tool, kindly asked the founders if we could try it out, and we've been using the same setup ever since. It lacks some of the finer audio fitering features of Zoom, but makes up for it in the visual representation of the space. You can see who's in which breakout room, so you can find people you want to talk to.

Welo video conferencing software


Miro is our whiteboarding tool. We've got a bunch of different frames that fall into two categories: locked frames with explanations the organizers have prepared ahead of time, and empty frames for participants to contribute to.

Our locked frames

Our locked frames have explanations about: the code of conduct, the laws of an unconference, how Welo and Miro work, why the rooms are named the way they are, which rooms are rooms for regular sessions vs. hallway/break kind of sessions.

Our empty frames

We've got a frame for participants to introduce themselves. Forget someone's name or need their LinkedIn? There'll be a little card with their name, face, and contact info to help you out. We'd tried networking or get-to-know-you type activities to start the event in the past, but 10am is not the ideal time for that.

We've got a marketplace topic queue that we use at the start of the morning and the afternoon. This is where participants (and organizers!) give their session a title and a category. During the marketplace, they get to briefly pitch their session to entice others to join them. Once they've done that, they drag their stickie onto the...

Session frames - these double as a schedule for the day, and a place to take notes within each session. The organizers have set the structure of the day - how long the sessions last, how many there are - but the participants are the lifeblood of the event: bringing topics, running sessions, and taking digital notes on the Miro board.

We've got frames for announcements and kudos, to help participants and organizers call our particular changes or high-fives that need to be distributed before the retro.

We use the retro frame at the end of the day, though we encourage people to capture feedback for us throughout the day as it occurs to them. We close the day with a brief reflection, discussion, and hang out until the last of the stragglers need to sign off.


Our Slack is very quiet. We mostly use it amongst the organizers to coordinate our activities in between events. The chat feature in Welo is perhaps not optimal, so it can serve as a slighty less ephemeral/confusing place to type things to each other during the event.


We just added this tool to our toolbelt while preparing for the event last week. We'd struggled with the Gmail limit of sending 50 emails at a time. We didn't want to be marked as spam, and wanted to give past participants a straightforward way to unsubscribe from being bothered by us ever again, for both quality of life and GDPR reasons. Once our free trial ends, we'll pay MailerLite a small monthly fee to maintain our email lists we'd previously cobbled together in a variety of Google spreadsheets.

Our lean coffee is a very small version of the big unconference day. We split up into groups small enough to foster a conversation, cut out the whole schedule aspect, and just vote on items in the topic queue to drive the discussion. The Miro board's a lot simpler, but the rest of the tools are the same.

Thanks to my fellow organizers Huib Schoots, Sanne Visser, and especially Joep Schuurkes since he suggested I overcome my recent writer's block by writing about this topic. Reach out to one of us if you're interested in setting up your own unconference, lean coffee, or other type of structured-yet-unstructured event.