He did not find any magic lamp. But his business mantra of luring customers with unbelievable discounts worked like magic.
Only in two and a half years, an ordinary man handled billions of taka to build the so-called second largest e-commerce platform in the country.
Evaly grew on advances from customers against its promise to deliver products at a much later date that only deferred further, keeping hundreds of thousands of customers waiting for the products and causing the payments due to hundreds of sellers – who sold products to the platform on credit – to get stuck.
Driving premium cars like Range Rover, Audi, the luxury of generous spending for advertisements and sponsoring, and even buying out startups despite their own struggles for funds – nothing was out of Evaly's own money.
Rhetoric regarding changing the e-commerce landscape and people's life – everything predictably collapsed as soon as a central bank investigation revealed in June this year that Evaly owed over Tk500 crore to its customers and suppliers and the firm failed to outline any way to clear those. No investors dared to opt in for a rescue of the firm either.
Eventually, Evaly founder and Managing Director Mohammad Rassel and his wife and Evaly Chairman Shahima Nasrin were arrested on Thursday following a case filed by one of their millions of defrauded customers.
The rise and fall
Mohammad Rassel, a former young banker with a business experience of aggressively positioning diaper brand Kidz in the market, opened e-commerce platform Evaly on 16 December 2018.
With free gifts for registering as a customer, and up to several hundred percent cashbacks it did not take too much time to let people opt for Evaly offers.
Unbelievable discounts in large ticket products, including motorcycles, electronics and appliances only led to an increase in the number of its customers, while an increasing number of brands and shops came onboard to clear any stock overnight.
Until then, everything sounded like a great story of e-commerce penetration in a very potential market.
But, observers had something to worry about – the business model Evaly pioneered to scale up and compete with Alibaba's Daraz.
While all over the world, ambitious e-commerce platforms burn their capital for subsidised growth, Evaly with its meagre capital base and no external investment only burned customers' money.
Another factor, Evaly used to offer deliveries in 45 days and for 30-50% discounts and millions of the mass people paid to buy big-ticket items worth over several millions of taka.
That reminds experts of the fraud story of Charles Ponzi, whose scheme used to give 50% return in 45 days in Boston, USA a century ago.
Since Ponzi's claim to utilise clients' money in an unbelievably profitable postal coupon trade proved to be false and fresh money stopped coming in, thousands of his clients went broke and Ponzi served jail for his fraudulence.
Any scheme that offers an abnormal return to allure the masses and only depends on fresh money from new entrants to pay back the previous ones, is now called a "Ponzi scheme".
Mohammad Rassel's rhetoric to justify the discounts and his suspected Ponzi scheme used to include the ideas of saving some bucks in bulk procurement, subsidising only some of the sold products, a potential for profit margins, and most importantly the hope for rescuer investors finally proved to have been useless to the millions of Evaly customers waiting for products worth at least Tk311 crore and hundreds of merchants to whom the platform owes Tk206 crore, according to the Bangladesh Bank's partial findings in April.
Understandably, neither any investor came to rescue Evaly nor figured out a way to pay back.
Gigantic comeback from the 2020 fallout
Following an August 2020 media report on Evaly's business model and practices to default in time delivery, the Bangladesh Bank froze Evaly and its founders' bank accounts, a commerce ministry-formed committee investigated Evaly affairs.
Customers and sellers who went cautious came back to Evaly with a bigger exposure as they saw that no authorities had stopped Evaly's business.
In 2020, Evaly was claiming to have acquired 30 lakh customers and it took less than six months to raise the number to 70 lakh after the reappearance in weeks.
Subsidised SME deals, designed for the small businesses to source their merchandise from Evaly at a much cheaper rate, entrapped thousands who paid Evaly in February-March this year and are yet to get any product or refund.
Aspiring middle-class youths rushed for the Evaly discounts on their dream motorcycles, families ordered home-appliances and electronics to match their needs and ability.
A large number of the youth even began thanking Evaly for the discounts that allowed them to buy products cheaper and later sell at higher prices.
Now, a little surprising to many, thousands of brands made the same mistake as they registered in Evaly to sell on revolving supplier's credit.
Bata Shoe, Apex Footwear, electronics and two-wheeler manufacturer Jamuna Group, Samsung electronics manufacturer and Hyundai car distributor Fair Group, beverage giant Coca-Cola, the largest local consumer item brands, the top supermarket chains who did not sell through Evaly?
The list of brands also include to whom Evaly owes even more than Tk100 crore.
Evaly got the largest leg of its growth after bypassing the August 2020 government crackdown for investigation.
The commerce ministry took an additional year to finalise its Standard Operating Procedure for the e-commerce industry which stopped taking advances from customers against the long cycle delivery of products and also to introduce an escrow system in electronic payment gateways which ensures after delivery fund transfer to the Evaly-like e-commerce platforms.
Had the government taken the steps a year ago, neither Evaly could have engaged so many customers and merchants in their second leg of journey, nor its business model would have been replicated among the several dozen mushroomed e-commerce platforms including Dhamaka and E-orange which have been already sued for their fraudulence in the name of dip discount e-commerce.
Evaly customers and many observers were speculating on a government blessing on Mohammad Rassel as they saw no tough action against Evaly over months, despite thousands of consumer right violation cases.
However, the news of arresting Rassel seemed to increase the anxiety of many customers as he was repeatedly throwing hopes for them for paybacks if allowed to remain in business.
Will a criminal trial help with their refunds? They wonder.