How one business school professor and AI expert uses Medium to share his ideas, build a following, and raise his professional profile
Enrique Dans is a Professor of Innovation and Technology at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. He holds a B.A. in biological sciences from the University of Santiago de Compostela, an MBA from IE, a Ph.D in Information Systems from UCLA, and has done post-doctoral work at Harvard Business School. In addition to his position at IE, he is a visiting professor at the Diplomatic School in Spain and at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and advises startups and other companies, including the artificial intelligence company BigML. He speaks regularly at technology and innovation conferences around the world, and has been named to Forbes’ “The Best Influencers” list.
Dans began posting on Medium in 2013, and currently has some 54,000 followers. I spoke to him about how he got started on Medium, why he writes on the platform, what advice he has for other Medium writers, the value of Medium to academics, what scares him (and doesn’t) about artificial intelligence, and more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jon Gluck: Let’s start by talking about your work. Your title is Professor of Innovation and Technology. Tell us what that means, exactly.
Enrique Dans: I teach classes at different levels — from students who have just graduated to MBAs, seasoned managers, and CEOs. When I started 33 years ago, I wasn’t intending to become a professor. I’m a biologist by training, and when most of my colleagues graduated, they took a course to become a high-school teacher. I said, “No, I don’t want to do that. Teaching sounds boring.” So I decided to go for my MBA and maybe start my own company.
I had started with computers early on, and I quickly found during my biology years that my familiarity with computing was useful. I could use spreadsheets for genetics, word processors, presentation programs, and many other things. When I started my MBA, in 1989, a professor realized, “Hey, this guy knows a thing or two about computing, and he’s not a computer engineer, so we can understand what he’s saying.” So he offered me to start teaching there, and as soon as I tried it, I loved it.
I started with software lessons, then, when I came back to Spain from California, I started teaching information systems because my PhD was on that subject. Since then, I’ve been teaching innovation.
JG: And what exactly does that entail?
ED: I try to help students understand the different innovation models and how they can turn innovation into a competitive advantage — how can they keep innovation going, something that’s usually extremely difficult since companies usually get comfortable at a certain level of innovation. Once they find their competitive advantage, they tend to stay there. It’s very difficult to get people moving when they feel comfortable.
JG: Let’s talk about when you started blogging. You found it helpful for teaching purposes, is that right?
ED: One thing I try to do that’s different from most of my colleagues is that most of my colleagues rely on the typical Harvard or Stanford case study. But most of those studies are at least six months old. I want to teach innovation using examples that are happening as we speak. That’s why I started my blog in 2003. I thought, if I can blog in a way that allows me to put all my references, links, and so on there, then later on, when I want to teach a class on that subject, everything is already sorted. My students can have their readings there, and I can start the discussion from there.
I realized quickly that the way content gets discovered and moves and flows from Medium all over the Internet is really valuable.
I started on Blogger, then WordPress, and then when Ev Williams started Medium I followed him there. I mean, both Blogger and Twitter gave me a huge following. A quarter of a million followers is absurd for a professor like me. So when I saw Ev creating Medium, I decided to try it. Right away, I thought, “Hey, I like it. It has a different flavor.” The emphasis was on a very simple editing tool that allows an author to write with everything centered on the content. At the time, I had been blogging mostly in Spanish, but I wanted to expand my audience and start blogging in English. Mine was one of the first blogs in Spain, so I already had a very loyal followership there. But in English, there are many people who write about these topics and many of them are much better than I am; getting discovered through SEO and so on is much more difficult. I realized quickly that the way content gets discovered and moves and flows from Medium all over the Internet is really valuable.
JG: What were some of your first impressions when you got started?
ED: First of all, the way my community started to grow. I went very fast from no subscribers at all to more than 5,000. It took me much longer to reach that on other platforms. I also enjoyed the aesthetics: the design, the way you can do things very easily. When you start blogging on Medium, the first feeling you have is that you miss certain features, but then you realize, “Hey, I don’t need those extra features. I have all the things I want here.” Not that WordPress is extremely cumbersome or anything, but Medium is much more natural. It doesn’t take your attention away from what you’re writing. It allows you to focus.
I also enjoy having the freedom to say what I want to say. I stopped publishing on another platform because they were constantly bugging me with, “Hey, this reads too aggressive. Change it because Amazon is going to get pissed at us.”
And when the Wall Street Journal or the BBC decides to call me to comment on something, it’s almost always because they saw a piece of mine on Medium. That exposure is terrific.
JG: What’s been your most popular post to date?
ED: There are several that have gotten a lot of attention, but the ones that jump out to me are related to Tesla. Tesla is a company that I, as a professor of innovation, obviously follow closely. When I write about Tesla and state my case strongly, I find it resonates with readers. “How Tesla Proved Critics Wrong” is one example. At the time, many people thought Tesla was a flash in the pan that would go away after a few years because it wasn’t making any money. Bob Lutz, a well-known auto analyst, was writing articles like, “If you like the Tesla, and it’s a fantastic car, you should buy it fast because the company is going to go belly up at some point because it doesn’t know how to make money.” I felt clearly in my mind that what these guys were doing — investing, investing, investing, becoming completely different, and achieving a significant distance from their competitors — was the right thing to do, and I tried to explain that in a very easy way. I think that struck a chord.
Now that Medium has the Boost program, that also helps stories get more attention.
JG: Do you find Medium has particular value to academics?
ED: I do. Academic journals are in a huge crisis right now. The role they were playing in the academic community is being heavily questioned. The process for getting into journals is slow, their reach is limited, and they’re extremely expensive. Medium lets people publish quickly, ask others in the academic community for feedback, and reach a wide audience. That has a lot of value. Personally, I’d like to see more professors on the platform. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.
Medium lets people publish quickly, ask others in the academic community for feedback, and reach a wide audience.
JG: You post every day. Why so frequently?
ED: I believe you can improve your productivity and your life with good habits, so I try to make my blog a habit, for my readers and for myself. I’m honored that so many people read my blog regularly and, in return, I try to give them something to read every day. Then, once you’ve been doing something for 20 years, you don’t want to stop. There’s a sunk cost that precludes you from taking a day off. That means that I blog when I’m on vacation, when I’m in the hospital, whenever. (I’ve actually blogged from the hospital.) Since I started in 2003, there hasn’t been a single day that I haven’t blogged. If I miss a day someday, my followers will probably call the police.
JG: How do you come up with ideas for your posts?
ED: My philosophy is that you don’t blog with your head, you blog with your feet. No one can blog consistently based only on what he or she has in his or her head. You have to read constantly, to keep walking across stuff, across new knowledge, news, etc. You have to feed your mind constantly to keep your blogging alive.
Personally, I spend more time reading than writing. I start with the things in my Feedly, my feed reader: the tech section of CNBC, Fast Company, HBR, TechCrunch, MIT Tech Review and other usual suspects. Then I save the things I find interesting there to an algorithmic recommender, Refind, and that gives me things that don’t come from my usual sources. And my third layer is social media, specifically Twitter, where I choose not to follow my friends or general media, but people who share or write interesting stuff.
JG: What do you think accounts for your success on Medium?
ED: I think people like to find sources of information they can trust, and I would say I’m an easy bet. I’m not a salesperson for anyone, I have no ax to grind. I consider it extremely important to be a neutral academic. Maybe that’s why readers like my posts.
JG: What’s some of the best feedback you’ve received?
ED: This past weekend, I went to the northern part of Spain with a few friends, and I got stopped at a Tesla charger by someone. It turns out the guy was influenced to get his Tesla by me. Last week, someone sent me a message saying, “Hey Enrique, I’ve been reading you for some time, but I just realized you are a biologist. I’ve been working in oceanography for many years, and I would love to have a meeting with you and discuss a few things.” And so we jumped on Zoom. When those things happen, it’s amazing. It means you’ve become a part of someone’s life.
JG: What other writers and publications do you follow on Medium?
ED: I follow umair haque. Sometimes he’s too catastrophic, but I like some of his viewpoints. Lately I started following Attila Vágó, he’s an interesting guy. I read the Medium Daily Digest email every morning. The algorithm works fantastically well with me; it integrates not just the publications I follow, but also other things. I read content on crypto and technology, like Coinmonks, Technality, and The Startup, because that’s the type of content you need to follow constantly. Everything changes so amazingly fast.
JG: Do you have any practical advice for other Medium writers?
ED: Invite people to engage in conversation. You can learn a lot from your readers that way. And be predictable. I try to get people to understand that if they follow me, they’re going to get one article per day so they know what to expect and have a reason to come back.
JG: Before I let you go, I have two quick questions about AI. First, what’s the most important thing we all need to know right now?
ED: Coming up with an algorithm that speaks human language in the way ChatGPT does is an amazing feature, but we need to be very clear what ChatGPT is and what it is not. Is it an algorithm that can help with customer service by answering certain types of questions, for example? Yes. Is it an algorithm that always generates the truth? No. If you ask ChatGPT to write something in the style of Enrique Dans, it will do it very well because it has tons of my articles to train itself with. But if you ask ChatGPT whether I’m married or not, since I normally don’t say anything about that on the Internet, it doesn’t know. So what does it do? It makes a guess. ChatGPT has married me with five different women and none of them is my wife. In fact, one of them is my boss’s wife. Because she was at several conferences I was in, ChatGPT found commonalities. Fortunately, both my boss and his wife have a good sense of humor!
In terms of business, one thing a lot of companies don’t understand is that if you want algorithms to deal with your customer’s probability of buying this or the probability of a transaction being fraudulent, most likely you should be training your own algorithms. Companies that want to differentiate themselves will have a combination of algorithms they use from Microsoft or Google or OpenAI and algorithms they create themselves. The best company in an industry will be the company that learns fastest how to train its algorithms so they become better than their competitors’ algorithms. This is something most managers still don’t realize. They still believe all they have to do is to make a decision, “Okay, do I buy BARD or ChatGPT?”
JG: Lastly, what’s your biggest fear about AI? What keeps you up at night?
ED: I don’t believe algorithms will become self-conscious; I don’t believe in the Terminator hypothesis. My biggest fear is what happens when millions of people lose their jobs because they’ve been replaced by robots. Everyone was expecting disruption in the blue collar part of the market — in factories, for example — but it’s not just that. It’s happening with white collar jobs, too. Society needs to adapt to that. I’m convinced, for instance, about the need for a UBI, an unconditional basic income in the future, but that’s not going to solve everything. The whole idea of work is going to change, and that’s going to be extremely challenging. One of the hardest things for people to do is to not do anything at all.
Also in this series:
- How ADEOLA SHEEHY-ADEKALE is leveling-up her Medium publication to help women’s stories get heard
- How Google data scientist Cassie Kozyrkov found success (and a fulfilling creative outlet) on Medium
- How Kaki Okumura’s Medium essays led to a book on health and human psychology
- How Thomas Smith successfully launched a new AI publication on Medium
- How Devon Price redefined ‘lazy’ and turned his Medium essay into a book
Who should we interview next? Let us know in the comments. And, if you’re inspired to write on Medium, get started.