Bisnow CEO Will Friend dies at 33

Struck by lightning while boating in North Carolina

Will Friend of Bisnow (LinkedIn)
Will Friend of Bisnow (LinkedIn)

William Friend, a British emigré who lived a life worthy of a Horatio Alger novel, becoming one of the youngest leaders in commercial real estate media, has died. He was 33.

Friend, the head of Bisnow, was struck by lightning Sunday while on a boat in North Carolina, near Masonboro Island, according to WECT News. Emergency responders attempted to resuscitate him, but he was pronounced dead in the ambulance, according to the news outlet.

The native Londoner moved to the U.S. at 15, against the wishes of his parents. “I just fell in love with America — I could feel the American Dream,” Friend recalled on a podcast with real estate investor Chris Powers in 2019.

He dabbled in entrepreneurial ventures through high school and college, including as a club promoter and as a seller of fake IDs.

“He was a hustler in the best sense,” said Ryan Begelman, co-founder and former CEO of Bisnow, who met Friend at a Bisnow event in Dallas. He invited Friend to Washington, D.C., to check out the company and hosted him on an air mattress at his one-bedroom on Dupont Circle for what he thought would be a week.

Friend ended up being his roommate for a year, absorbing everything he could about the business. He became co-COO and took over as CEO in late 2014, steering Bisnow through its reported $50 million sale to private equity firm the Wicks Group in April 2016.

“A remarkable accomplishment at such a young age, demonstrating how special he was viewed by all parties involved,” said Ackman-Ziff CEO Simon Ziff, who knew Friend well and has long been involved in Bisnow’s executive retreat program. “He built upon that momentum for many years to follow.”

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With Wicks’ backing, Friend grew the outlet significantly, expanding its presence to more than 50 markets across the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Ireland. Bisnow was largely an events business, so when the pandemic hit, he made a quick pivot to virtual gatherings and grew its editorial operations.

“He ran the company like it was part of the Navy Seals,” Begelman said. “He could take on what seemed like a godly amount of tasks without breaking a sweat. And he would do it all with this cheeky British grin.”

“He was very transparent — he didn’t hold much back, good and bad,” said Powers, who heads Dallas–Fort Worth-based real estate private equity firm Fort Capital. “I used to ask him, ‘How do you have time to meet with all these people?'”

Powers described him as an “entrepreneur’s entrepreneur,” citing his ability to push through challenges such as the pandemic.

Sources across the industry cited both Friend’s outsized presence and his reputation as a daredevil; he was a self-taught pilot, deep-sea diver and Ironman triathlete.

“It was like he was mocking the gods,” Begelman said. “It’s fitting, in a way, that he would be struck down by Zeus himself.”